We can live to be 1,000 years old.
That’s the breathtaking claim made by Cambridge scientist Aubrey de Grey. If your first reaction is to think, “Why bother?” — if you think you’d just be frail and miserable during all of those extra years — de Grey says you don’t need to worry about that. You’ll remain vibrant and healthy throughout your incredibly long lifespan.
This sounds like something out of a science-fiction story set in the distant future. But according to de Grey, that future is almost here. He predicts that the first person who will live to be 1,000 has already been born.
In a TED talk, the long-bearded, pony-tailed, jeans-and-t-shirt wearing scientist presented the gist of his ideas in a clear and logical way. Metabolism causes damage to the cells of the body throughout our life, but metabolism does not directly cause aging. The cellular and molecular damage itself, which is a side effect of metabolism, is what creates the pathology that causes the body to age.
Current anti-aging strategies try to prevent the damage from occurring in the first place or to try to prevent the damage from creating pathology. Neither are effective as long-term strategies because both damage arising from metabolism and pathology arising from damage are ongoing processes.
What we can do instead, de Grey proposes, is to periodically repair the damage itself. The repair jobs don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be good enough to keep the damage below the threshold that will trigger age-causing pathology.
We don’t need a huge, dramatic scientific breakthrough in order to start extending life; scientists don’t have to find a way to extend the lifespan by 1,000 years all at once. We just need a series of smaller, incremental advances.
For example, say that new research discovered a way to extend the lifespan of healthy middle-aged people by about 30 years. While those people are living their extra 30 years, scientific research will continue, and say there’s another discovery during that time that will extend their lives for an additional 25 years. Then, during those 25 years, research will continue, and so on. In this way, small step by small step, the progress of research will add more time to people’s lives, time that keeps adding up — and that’s how we will get to 1,000-year-long lifespans.
We just need to take that first step. De Grey predicts that the first person who will live to be 1,000 will only be 10 years younger than the first person who lives to be 150.
Learning how to repair the damage that causes aging is well within our grasp, he says. There are only seven types of cellular and molecular damage that can cause aging, so the task is not overwhelming. The list of seven items has remained remarkably stable, with no new items being added in the last 20 years. They include cell loss, mitochondrial mutations, and “junk” inside and outside of cells.
The exciting news is that scientists already know how to fix all seven types of damage — at least in principal and in mice. All we need now is sufficient funding to go ahead with the research that de Grey says could make life extension for humans a practical reality within the next decade.
Some major funders have already stepped up to the plate. Aubrey de Grey himself, who recently inherited an estimated $16.5 million dollars, donated $13 million to life-extension research. The second-largest donor is venture capitalist Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, who has pledged $3.5 million to support the scientific work. The third-largest donor is Internet entrepreneur Jason Hope of Arizona whom pledged $500,000.
With his long beard, de Grey looks somewhat like a prophet. Perhaps he feels like one too, at times, as he faces skepticism from much of the scientific establishment. What’s interesting is that while his ideas have not yet been definitively proven, they haven’t been disproven either. Years ago, a scientific journal at MIT offered a $20,000 prize to any molecular biologist who could show that de Grey’s ideas on life extension were “so wrong” that they would be “unworthy of learned debate.” No one was able to claim that prize. De Grey, by the way, was so confident of the outcome of the MIT challenge that he contributed $10,000 of the prize money himself.
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Author Amy Taylor is a technology and health writer. Amy began her career as a nurse in Arizona. She has taken that knowledge and experience and brought that to her unique writing capabilities. She really enjoys new health related issues that are tied directly to technology.