by Thomas Donaldson
Originally published in Physical Immortality 2(4) (2004), p. 28-29
I will begin here by stating first that ultimately we want means to prevent and reverse aging, and second that research into the mechanisms of aging deserves more support than research into either cancer or heart/circulation problems (presently the two leading subjects for which proponents call for donations and lots of research gets done). It’s quite clear by simply walking into any doctor’s office that aging must ultimately cause most health problems we normally see. Most patients waiting to see their doctor turn out to be old. In an almost unconscious way this situation also causes a lot of worry among politicians about an impending time when older, decrepit people will form a much larger proportion among the population than before. At the same time I will here argue that cryonics right now provides the best strategy to prolong our lives, while research on antiaging may take far longer to achieve its goals than anyone living now expects.
The difficulty comes both from the scientific side and the social/political side of the problem of aging. From the scientific side, the best possible proof that a treatment will indefinitely prolong the lives of human beings must come from a demonstration of its effects on human beings. Not fruit flies, worms, mice, or rats, but human beings. Yet there’s a small problem here: we are human beings ourselves, and a proof that a treatment prolongs the lifespan of people will take … at least the lifespan of some people. And as with mice or rats, such a study must take care that it uses healthy people, not those suffering from some disease known to shorten their lives. This is one of those hard truths that researchers in antiaging still search for means to work around. So far, they haven’t found any means not subject to some quite easy criticisms. Yes, with understanding of genetics some gerontologists have found similarities among genes closely related to aging among not just those mammals studied but among fruit flies and mammals. This constitutes an advance in the study of aging. However, whether it leads to treatment of aging in human beings runs into a problem. The action of one set of genes depends on the action of others.
Antioxidants provide one simple example of what this might mean for our longevity. Giving mice genes which increase the amount of antioxidant biochemicals their bodies make will lengthen the lifespans of these modified mice. However human beings live much longer than mice, and already produce much higher levels of antioxidant biochemicals than mice. Beyond a certain amount of antioxidants their effect will fall off. It should not be surprising if more antioxidants have only a small effect on our lifespans even though they have a larger effect on the lifespans of mice.
Calorie restriction raises a similar question. The current ongoing experiment with calorie restriction in monkeys will help deal with exactly that problem. If calorie restriction causes significantly less increase in lifespan of the test monkeys than it does of mice, that will suggest it may act even less strongly in human beings. We live much longer than mice. To some unknown degree, the metabolic changes which make us live longer may also include changes similar to those caused by calorie restriction. Yes, if this ongoing experiment with monkeys were to show a significantly smaller effect of calorie restriction in monkeys than in mice, I and many others would be disappointed. This problem arises with any drug or treatment shown to work on short-lived animals.
We live significantly longer already than any of the experimental animals used in aging research. (And yes, despite some claims, more than one drug has experiments in mice or rats which not just increases in average lifespan but increases in maximum lifespan too (1). What we really want and don’t now have is a test of aging independent of lifespan of the species tested. We do have a sign of aging, but not a test: animals that do not age at all will have lifespans forming an exponentially decreasing curve. (See Figure 1) Yet a sign of aging hardly constitutes a test. Still worse, if we used that sign to work out whether or not we were prolonging our lives, we ourselves would never live long enough to get the benefits of such a “test.” Even to devise a test independent of species lifespan may take more than a human lifespan. Could we do it not by waiting for creatures to die but by a far deeper understanding of how aging worked itself? Yes, but we’re still far from that level of understanding, and will need more time to reach it. Even calorie restriction, now accepted by almost all gerontologists as a treatment which affects aging, fails to cause that exponentially decreasing curve; instead the more-than-exponential period just happens later. We will not have truly dealt with aging itself until our lifespans follow that exponential curve (upon which we should then try to prevent the random accidents still causing our deaths).
Figure 1: Aging and Lifespans. If our deathrate remained independent of how long we had previously lived, then a curve showing lifespans of a population would look like an exponential curve Aexp(-at) where A is the population at time t = 0 and a > 0. However, curves of the lifespans of humans aren’t exponential. They show the effect of aging on deathrate: as we grow older, our deathrate increases. For a short period, they look as if they will be exponential, but then go to zero much more rapidly than the exponential curve. This remains true for calorie restriction experiments. In this figure, III shows an exponential curve starting with 100% of the population (of mice or humans). I shows a normal lifespan curve. II shows the lifespans of a calorie-restricted population, with an average approximately doubling that of a normally fed population. Units on the horizontal axis depend on the lifespan of the species studied; the vertical axis gives the % of surviving members at various times. A curve showing the effect if deathrate actually decreased the longer an individual lived is omitted. It would look a bit like an exponential curve but could tend to a positive limit.
The fundamental problem with all current experiments on aging comes from the simple fact that humans already live much longer than most animals. In one way, the scientific/medical problem of aging and means to prevent it resembles that of the very early days of astronomy. Planets moved slowly, and clouds interfered with seeing them. To come to enough understanding of their motions that anyone, even Ptolemy, could make a theory of how they moved took generations of observations, by many workers now completely unknown to us. We can hope that the scientific problem of aging won’t take nearly as long; but it still may take more than one generation, from the early work of McCay on calorie restriction to the implementation in human beings of treatments which abolish or reverse their aging.
Is there anything we can do to get around this problem? Yes, but it will involve a violation of accepted standards of current medicine (2). This gets us directly into the social-political side of the problem of aging. No law of nature prevents us from taking drugs shown to increase the lifespan of rats and mice even if their effect on our human lifespans remains unproven. However doing this violates current standards of medical practice, not simply because it tries to deal with aging, but because taking unproven drugs just isn’t normally done. Yes, it’s done as part of experiments, usually fairly short-term. It takes a long time and the actual reports on clinical use of a drug for physicians to get an idea of the effects of longterm use of that drug. Very few drugs of any kind get formal tests for the entire lifespan of normal people taking them. Moreover, genetic experiments on human beings, even those which try to fix well-known inherited diseases such as hemophilia, still run into lots of opposition.
To fix ourselves so that we do not age, or even age at a slower rate than normal, will activate even more opposition, just as any treatment which improves patients rather than cures their “illness.” The many (and almost totally unopposed) genetic modifications of mice made to study some metabolic factor, and the opposition to any such modifications of humans, shows how this opposition works. Moreover, aging, of course, still isn’t normally seen as an illness. It’s not so much the direct opposition which slows down advances here, but the effects of such opposition on funding for experiments, and the willingness of scientists to risk their careers in studying a treatment, say, to increase lifespan (or intelligence, et cetera). It’s not that these social-political problems in the study of human antiaging, and the application of that study, will prevent it entirely: instead they slow it down. No one opposed the development of transistors, so we saw electronics make great leaps forward. We should not decide from this example that work on aging will happen as rapidly, even with the latest genetic methods.
What, then, of cryonics? The major and important difference between cryonics and antiaging comes from the simple fact that discovery of methods to preserve our living brains avoids the scientific problems in the study of aging completely. Of course suspension, too, involves lots of scientific problems. Still, none of them involve work which will necessarily use up time. A lifespan experiment on mice requires at least 3 years. A cryobiological experiment testing a modified preservation method takes no more than a week at most. Neither antiaging nor cryonics meet with lots of social approval, so funding will be low (but still nonzero) for both fields. However cryobiology can progress much faster than antiaging. Not only that, but its progress almost totally lacks the problems of proving that an advance has happened. The state of a brain, or even a section of brain, after vitrification and rewarming to normal temperature, shows directly whether or not the method used improved on previous methods.
In one sense, opposition to antiaging research has actually had a much stronger effect on its speed than any opposition to cryonics. No explicitly immortalist society promoting immortality (i.e. total absence of aging) yet exists. It’s thought quite extreme among doctors for a doctor to suggest that we might even increase lifespans by 50%. Yet at least two different societies exist right now, Alcor and the Cryonics Institute, which are actively suspending people and working to improve their methods. I’ve known, ever since I was a child, older people who thought that the problem of aging would be solved in time for them, and found themselves decrepit, old, and financially dependent, still without any means to cure their aging.
No matter what some scientists say, a cure for aging involves many problems all of which will need time for their solution. Even now, you may be young and feel that you need not think about cryonics because some means to slow your aging will come before you’ve gotten very old, and from that still other means to slow your aging even more … and so to true agelessness. In this article we have seen why such dreams of a rapid solution to aging cannot come fast for any of us. At the same time, cryonic suspension able at least to preserve our brains in a reversible form, allowing restoration of vital functions, looks likely to come much sooner.
1. Scrutiny of the discussion of antiaging drugs in my book, A Guide to Antiaging Drugs, will produce several drugs which this feature.
2. The strategy is simple but hard to implement. Those taking a drug shown to increase lifespan in some class of healthy mammal sign onto an experiment so that their state of health is monitored for the rest of their lives. It is both the length of such an experiment, and the impracticality of really long term tests of any specific drug or treatment, plus the simple fact that these drugs do not cure any illness, which makes such a procedure violate current medical procedures. There are fully accepted studies of the health of some population of people under “natural” conditions, following how their health changes over time. Subjects, however, aren’t taking any special treatment.