Do You Want to Live Forever?
Silicon Valley Execs Have Invested Heavily in Research to Slow Down the Hands of Time
I’m not smart enough to be a physicist. But if infinite universes stretch beyond our own like bubbles in a sea of boiling water, if there really are an infinite number of me’s out there like cosmologist Alex Vilenkin surmises in his book Many Worlds in One, there’s hope. According to Vilenkin, in some other universe, I’m not writing this sentence but surfing a 65-foot wave. In another, I’m nothing but a bug circling your porch light. But in one section of the cosmos, since everything that can happen does happen in a multitude of universes, there is a version of me that’s proficient enough in mathematics to be a theoretical physicist.
My interest in physics stems from a fascination with time, and physics is the only science that openly studies time. Exactly what is time? Is it simply the ticking of a clock? The turning of the pages of the calendar? The hard fact is, what exactly time is and how it works is still largely undefined in physics.
But for the rest of us, time is the passage of the seasons, the wrinkling of our skin as we age. When I was a kid, time by this definition flowed very slowly. Why does it seem to move faster the older I get? According to Albert Einstein, time is relative. It speeds up or slows down depending on how fast one thing is moving relative to another. Why should aging have that affect, and why does it matter?
It matters because from the moment humans are first aware of our existence, we are haunted by the fact that our lives will inevitably come to an end one day. Some believe that it’s not the terminal event we dread, that God will resurrect us. Others hope that almighty scientists will find a way to reset our clock before we cross the great divide.
So with each passing day, we’re left to ponder what it means to grow old, why time seems to speed up with age, and what we can do about it.
You may have seen the 2011 documentary How to Live Forever that searches for the secrets of long life. It’s a weird film following a weird group of characters — like a 101-year-old beer-drinking, chain-smoking marathon runner named Buster, among others. Humans could once expect to live to around 23, we learned from the film, yet when I googled a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 72,197 Americans aged 100 or older in 2014. The oldest American on record is Sarah Knauss, who lived to the age of 119.
This means our ideas about aging, and what it means to be 50, 60, or 90, are changing. In a survey conducted by the Gary and Mary West Health Institute, 87 percent said a person has reached old age at 85. How will this definition change next year, and ten years after that? How much older can we get?
These questions cannot be answered from a strictly statistical perspective.
Last October, for instance, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine published a statistical study in the journal Nature that claims it is not possible to extend the human lifespan beyond the ages already attained by the people on the list of the world’s oldest verified humans. But Dutch experts at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute attacked the Einstein study. Using a different statistical technique, they concluded that mortality goes down in old age and that lifespan may increase to 125 years by 2070. Beyond that, the sky is the limit.
And they’re not the only group that challenged the Einstein study. Scientists from the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Healthy Aging, the Max Planck Institute, the University of Groningen, and McGill University also disputed the findings that there is a limit to human lifespan from a statistical probability standpoint.
What’s troubling to me about these studies is that they arrived at their conclusions not by examining current medical research but numbers. I’ve always felt that numbers can be made to say anything, so I don’t believe we can accurately use statistics to put a cap on human lifespan. It just makes sense to me that humans will live longer in the future, statistics aside. Advances in stem cell research, molecular and cellular repair, cloning, synthetic organs and cybernetics are already improving our life expectancy.
Take the case where the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Pittsburg made aging mice young again. According to a study reported by National Geographic, elderly mice with a usual lifespan of around 21 days were injected 4 days before their expected death with stem cells from younger mice. The results were dramatic. The injected mice not only lived, but they lived 3 times their normal lifespan, surviving for an additional 71 days. That’s huge in human terms, right? Yep, that would be the equivalent of an 80-year old living to be 200 years old.
The Stanford School of Medicine was also able to rejuvenate aging mice with stem cell genes. Same thing at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies where they extended the life of a mouse with an accelerated-aging condition, according to a study published in the journal Cell. While these techniques cannot be applied directly to people, the feats point toward a better understanding of human aging.
There are a number of other recent anti-aging studies, including one by Simon Fraser University in Canada published last year in the journal PLOS ONE claiming that having more children slows down the aging process for women.
But a paper that I’ve added to my list of things that make me go “wow” was first published in 1996. Unless you read a lot of scholarly articles, you probably never heard of a small invertebrate that refuses to die. In Reversing the Life Cycle, scientists describe how a tiny animal known as the “immortal jellyfish” can transform itself back to its earliest stage of life at any time, “thus escaping death and achieving potential immortality.” You roll your eyes but it’s true!
As a businessperson, my first thought after learning about a miniscule jellyfish that has sipped from the fountain of youth was: Why haven’t the biotech companies run with this? Talk about a blockbuster vaccine. Maybe the government wants to keep the technology behind a species that can bypass death all to itself. Somewhere in a secluded farmhouse like “The Shop” in the movie Firestarter, are humans being injected with jellyfish genes by a top-secret agency? Okay…that’s silly. Just as silly as the possibility that I’m a world-renowned theoretical physicist in an alternate reality.
But silliness aside, research on staying young has its obvious advantages and while you probably wouldn’t want to be stuck in a loop of adulthood and childhood forever, one can’t help but wonder how the science behind the biologically immortal jellyfish might be used to reverse the aging process in humans. There’s something really fascinating about what that jellyfish does, don’t you agree?
From healing wounds more quickly to keeping astronauts from aging on the long trip to other planet, the advantages of staying young are many. I remember when one of my sons in his late teens was hurt during an ATV accident. If it had happened to me, the doctor said he would have removed my spleen, leaving me with a compromised immune system. But my son fully recovered without a splenectomy (spleen removal) because he was young.
But maintaining your youth and living longer are two different things.
When you consider the quality of extra years — your healthspan in addition to your lifespan — you have to wonder if we really want to life forever. If our lifespans increase, but our standards of health and comfort do not keep pace the increased longevity of elderly lifespans will result in soaring healthcare costs — not to mention that food supplies will tighten. On the other hand, if our lifespans are extended and our quality of life is equally extended, there will be social consequences — like governments implementing policies to control population growth that make China’s former “one-child” rule pale in comparison.
Let’s admit it, we’re all growing old. According to science, reversing or slowing the process down is a technological challenge, not a physical (or statistical) impossibility. Thanks to progress on numerous medical fronts, we’ve gotten better at fighting off disease in recent decades and death rates have dropped. In an attempt to eventually stop the aging process all together, Silicon Valley bigwigs like Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have invested hundreds of millions in research dollars. With this funding and more, advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have greatly helped in extending life expectancy.
But at the end of the day, we each have to ask ourselves if we really want to live forever. The answer will not directly affect you and me but rather our children and their children. And it’s something to think about. I’m not a betting man but if I was I would place a wager on science. It’s not hyperbolic to suggest that scientists will find a way within five decades or less to expand the human lifespan beyond anything currently imaginable. But whether future generations will want to life forever if and when science makes death “optional” is an entirely different bet, one for which the bookmakers would likely struggle when setting the odds.
For me, it’s hard to wrap my mind around what the world might be like when my grandkids are 85. I suspect sophisticated artificial intelligence and quantum computers that can solve every unsolvable problem will no longer be science fiction. Will science have conquered death? I don’t know. And I honestly don’t know what I think about the possibility. If you couldn’t tell already, I fall pretty squarely on the pro-extend-life side of things, but extending life and putting an end to death are not the same things. To me, death is part of living. Even the immortal jellyfish eventually falls victim to the hazards of life — like an accident or being eaten by a predator.
So whether you question eternal life or welcome it, it seems possible that science will eventually make it a reality. On that note, I’ll leave you with this to wrap up: There’s a Cambridge educated doctor who insists that someone living today will make it to 1,000 years. A few years back, Dr. Aubrey de Grey was lead author of a paper published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences that claims the “infinite postponement of aging…may be within sight.” Since then, he’s been even more adamant that age has no limit. No question that he’s brilliant. But is he missing a screw?
According to Alex Vilenkin, somewhere, by pure chance, there is a nearly-identical version of you living on a near-parallel Earth who knows the answer to that question.