Medical science and demographics are converging to give us a bountiful crop of elderly people, because we live, on average, thirty years longer than humans in most of history. That’s good, but the problem is that we spend those extra thirty years being elderly, with all the infirmities of age that comes with it. What good is saving up for retirement when you’re too tired and ill to enjoy it? That’s where cutting-edge medical science is looking. Harvard molecular biologist George Church is working on gene therapy to fight the wearing out of the body, to make old cells your again -or at least act young again.
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Church is aware that the Food and Drug Administration, among other regulatory bodies, may not be crazy about weird new therapies that address what we customarily take to be a natural process. “Our emphasis is on reversal rather than longevity, in part because it’s easier to get permission from the F.D.A. for reversal of diseases than for prolongation of life,” he says. “Longevity isn’t our aim—we’re just aiming at the reversal of age-related diseases.” Noah Davidsohn enthusiastically seconds this: “We want to make people live better, not necessarily longer, though obviously longer is part of better.” But Church makes it plain that these are adjoining concerns. “How old can people grow?” he says. “Well, if our approach is truly effective, there is no upper limit. But our goal isn’t eternal life. The goal is youthful wellness rather than an extended long period of age-related decline. You know, one of the striking things is that many super-centenarians”—people who live productively past a hundred years—“live a youthful life, and then they die very quickly. They’re here, living well, and then they’re not. It’s not a bad picture.”
Read about some of the experiments going on now that may help us stay young as we live ever longer, at the New Yorker.
(Image credit: Igor Bastidas)