Thursday, January 12, 2023

Quest for Longevity

The cover story of the January 2023 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, a 35-page article titled "The Science of Living Longer and Better," explores several different approaches, both theoretical and practical, to the goal of extending the human lifespan. The genetically programmed maximum age for us seems to be around 120 years. However, very few people make it that far.

Numerous drugs enable mice to live as much as 60% longer than normal. Why don't they work on people? Why do certain animals such as naked mole rats and some bats live significantly longer, in proportion to their size, than we do? Why do Greenland sharks live at least 250 years, maybe longer? Altering a single gene in a certain species of roundworms doubles their lifespan while keeping them youthfully energetic, but we're more complicated than worms. Why do people in some societies tend to enjoy longer, healthier lives than the average? Environment? Diet? Exercise? Other lifestyle factors? Some scientists have tried promising drug therapies on themselves, with mixed results. Animal studies show life extension outcomes from severe restriction of calorie intake, but, again, such a regimen hasn't produced similar effects on human subjects. Anyway, personally, if I could lengthen my lifetime by a decade or two that way, I wouldn't bother; adding on years of semi-starvation would be no fun.

Stipulating the natural human upper age limit as about 120 years suggests that the Howard Families project in Robert Heinlein's METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN couldn't work the way the novel portrays it. By the date of the novel, the 22nd century, the typical Howard Families member lives to 150, retaining the appearance and vitality of a person in the prime of life. This situation exists before rejuvenation therapies are invented later in the story. Simply interbreeding bloodlines of naturally long-lived people couldn't extend their maximum ages past the 120-year limit if genes for such extension don't already exist. Moreover, real-life super-centenarians, however vigorous, still look their age, not so youthful they have to adopt new identities to avoid unwelcome attention. The only way the "Methuselahs" of Heinlein's novel could survive and remain young-looking to the age of 150 would be if Lazarus Long had already spread the mutated gene responsible for his apparent immortality through most of the Howard population. (Given the character of Lazarus as portrayed in the later book TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, that hypothesis seems not unlikely.) That explanation wouldn't work for the early generations such as Lazarus's own mother and her contemporaries, though. There's no plausible way mere selective breeding for a century or so could produce human beings who live over 100 years with the appearance of well-preserved middle age.

So if we want lifespans like Heinlein's characters, we'll have to develop futuristic technologies similar to those speculated about in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC article. Even so, surpassing the natural limit of 120 years would seem to require something radically beyond those techniques, maybe direct alteration of DNA—such as the hypothetical "cellular reprogramming" mentioned in the article.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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