THE VERY NEXT NEW THING – WHAT IF YOU COULD LIVE FOREVER?
by Gini Graham Scott, PhD
What if you could live forever? What if your cells could repair themselves instead of dying or no longer dividing? What if you could overcome age-related illnesses, such as diabetes or heart disease?
Throughout history, humans have been looking for an elixir to prolong life and escape death. Now a new breakthrough in cell biology has brought scientists closer than ever to finding a cure for age-related diseases and prolonging cell life, according to a February 15, 2010 article “Scientists Discover the Secrets of Aging” by Clive Cookson in the Financial Times.[i] Although the scientists caution that they have not yet found an elixir for eternal life and may not in the foreseeable future, their discovery promises a much longer life, which brings us closer than ever to that eternal elixir. So even if you can’t find another body to maintain the youthful you, you might be able to revitalize your own body, as their breakthrough suggests.
Exactly what is this breakthrough? Simply this. An international team of scientists based atNewcastleUniversityinEnglandand includingUniversityofUlmscientists inGermanyinvestigated why cells age, leading them to slow or shut down. The cells no longer divide, and whatever tissues they create don’t function very well – so your skin might wrinkle or your heart might have trouble pumping. The scientists used a combination of approaches, including computer modeling, cell culture experiments, and genetically modified mice, to see what happens when cells age.
Though their findings published in the Journal of Molecular Systems Biology are complicated, basically what they discovered is that as we age, the “wear and tear” of everyday life damages the DNA in each cell. When the aging cell detects this damage, it sends out an internal chemical signal as a sign of distress. Then, this signal leads the mitochondria, the tiny membrane-enclosed organelles which supply cellular energy, to make oxidizing free radical molecules. These molecules then send the cell a signal to destroy itself or stop dividing, so the damaged DNA won’t result in cells that cause cancer.
This approach is quite different than the one that many scientists have pursued where they have focused on the ends of the human chromosomes, called “telomeres,” which become gradually shorter as humans age. Instead, these scientists have looked at how to keep the cells from aging, and how to prevent these revitalized cells from turning into cancer. Among other things, this breakthrough discovery on DNA aging enables scientists to come up with better drugs for any diseases associated with age, through rejuvenating these cells.
That’s a breakthrough with the potential to completely change our society. Here’s how. Within a few years, at the rate science is progressing, we should have new drugs that will fight these end of life diseases, leading people to live still longer. Then, what if scientists can repair the DNA in aging cells? Or what if they can prevent the mitochondria from making the free radical molecules, or if they can stop these free radicals from telling the cells to self-destruct or stop dividing without producing cancer? In short, now that scientists know the path that aging cells take, they can intervene at various points along the path to slow down or stop the effects of aging.
As they do, consider the possibilities. As people get older, they may no longer need the many beauty products or surgeries designed to cover up the signs of aging, such as wrinkled skin, since these signs of aging will disappear. Dating will undergo a major revolution, too, since older people will no longer look their age and will have the energy they used to have to participate in all kinds of fast and strenuous activities, from hiking and mountain climbing to bungee jumping, that are usually the province of the young.
Then, too, people won’t need to slow down or end their careers as they approach the usual retirement age in their 60s and older. Instead, older adults will have the energy to keep going and going and going – like the Energizer Bunny. And that’ll mean less of a problem for Social Security and Medicare, because more older people will be working and fewer will retire or have medical problems. Young adults will be relieved, too, that they no longer have to care for aging and infirm parents; in fact, nursing home and hospital populations should experience a big decline.
But there is one big problem for the younger generation, because they may find their path blocked by all the fit and healthy older people who are not leaving their jobs. And many health care and medical workers may be out of work, because there will be less need for their services.
But to look on the bright side, maybe everyone put out of work by the new Age Revolution (not the “New Age” Revolution!) might be able to find new niches that lead to new jobs, such as social clubs and cruises for seniors. The development of new niches is exactly what happens with every new technological breakthrough that closes down outmoded ways of and opens up new opportunities.
So I say, bring it on. As a member of this older Baby Boomer generation, this discovery about aging is certainly a breakthrough I can embrace.
[i] Clive Cookson, “Scientists Discover the Secret of Ageing,” 15 Feb. 2010, Financial Times, 15 Feb. 2010 <htpp://www.ft.com/cms/s/436a39a0-1a6e-11df-a2e3-00144feab49a…>