There are many promising areas of study that show we can dramatically extend human lifespan to 120 years, 150 years or even longer. Genetic manipulation, blood replacement, artificial organs, brain chip implants and other options for extending our lives will soon be available.
By Ed Ruth
Some very interesting advances have been made in the past couple of years to make the idea of significantly extending the human lifespan much more realistic. Living to 120 years, 150 years or even longer may become the norm if some of these advances come to fruition.
The idea of significantly increasing human lifespan may sound unrealistic until one considers the fact that we have already basically doubled the average human lifespan over the past 200 years. In the year 1800, disease and other social factors let some individuals live into their 70s but it was much much more common for people to die in their 30s and 40s. That fact had not changed a whole lot by the year 1900 but it has changed drastically since then. Most people in modern industrialized countries today have a life expectancy of around 75 years. Where it was once a rarity it is now commonplace for young adults to still have one or more of their grandparents alive.
Our ability to extend the average human lifespan today primarily stems from an increase in hygienic living conditions and our ability to fight infectious diseases and treat wounds and other injuries that previously would have lead to death. Diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox along with the extremely deadly bubonic plague which limited much of humanity’s lifespan in the past are no longer the death sentence they once were. So medical science has already extended the average human lifespan significantly.
We now seek to extend the human lifespan to its maximum natural extent and thus run into age-related diseases such as coronary artery disease, certain age-related cancers, diabetes, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Many scientists believe we are reaching the maximum lifespan our species is capable of achieving under natural circumstances. Which leads us to find circumstances that nature did not intend. Homo Sapiens is reaching the next step in our evolution. It is a step towards mankind using our science and technology to guide our evolution toward goals we choose rather allowing natural selection a freehand as it has always had in the past.
The goal of extending human lifespan is a very complicated goal. The aging process involves many factors so it makes sense that efforts to extend lifespan come from many different directions. Those directions can be categorized into two distinct sections: The Body and The Mind.
THE BODY: One of the primary focuses in human life extension is manipulation of our genetic structure. Take a big swig of coffee or whatever you need to wake up a bit because this next paragraph is the somewhat boring part. I’ll keep it short but it is important to include at least the basics of DNA structure to explain what is being done in regards to longevity research.
Telomerase is a ribonucleoprotein enzyme that is found at the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes. That mouthful, said in a little bit more plain English, means that every time a chromosome is copied, it knows it has reached the end of the strand by running up against this particular enzyme. But every time a chromosome is copied, the telomere region that holds these enzymes gets a little shorter. At some point, the strand is no longer long enough to maintain viability. So successful cellular division is reduced as telomerase enzymes reach their limited number of copies. Bone mass, muscle mass, immune systems, etc are thus reduced as we age. A large amount of work has been done over the past two decades to see how increased telomarase can affect aging and multiple studies have shown an increase in lifespan of over 20% for mice receiving such treatment. But the capability of telomarase to remove the limitations of cellular replication also bring with it a much increased chance for cancerous growth. You can bet that decades more research is ahead on using telomarase for extending human lifespan.
Longevity Genes: We are quickly beginning to understand how specific genes affect longevity. Scientists have the spent that last decade or so identifying “longevity genes” that are shown to significantly affect those that carry these variants. A recently completed study that analyzed the DNA of 152 Spaniards aged between 110 and 111 years and 742 Japanese people aged between 100 and 115 years identified several gene variations these groups share. This study also included information that supported the long-known association of lower caloric intake with longevity. Another recent study expands on this association by identifying the protein that holds the key to the lifespan-enhancing effect of caloric restriction. The study on yeast showed that gene therapy involving the ISW2 protein could potentially extend lifespan by up to 25 percent without any caloric restrictions. If this proves to be a successful line of study, this alone could extend average human lifespan to almost 100 years of age. And there are other paths, such as the FOX03 gene that have been shown to extend lifespan as well. Combined with the recent advances in creating artificial DNA that can enable us to make custom proteins that have longevity properties we select, we are looking at a future of very extensive and very effective genetic manipulation for extended our lives.
Young Blood: One exciting, if slightly ghoulish, advancement has been in the study of using fresh blood to replace old blood in an effort extend lifespan and vitality. Several studies have shown the protein called GDF11 is abundant in young mice and scarce in old ones. Recent studies have shown that an increase in GDF11 proteins increases skeletal muscle and heart strength significantly. It has many scientists believing that you could significantly increase lifespan and vitality by putting fresh blood into an older person. Our increasing knowledge on how to create artificial blood could make it very possible for rejuvenation treatments in the not-so-distant future that could significantly extend our lifespans. Don’t be too surprised if within the next decade or so you start seeing advertisements offering rejuvenation treatments to 50-60 year old people that say they can extend lifespans by 10-20 years. They’ll likely be offered overseas so they wont have to clear FDA hurdles and you can bet they will have long lines of waiting customers. After all, what price can you put on realistically adding a decade or two to your life?
Technology: Bioprinted replacement organs, Robotic prosthetics, Artificial implants, Nanotechnology and other technological advances could have a profound affect on our ability to extend lifespan. The various technologies will be further enhanced as Artificial Intelligence (AI) gains grounds. It is not too hard to see a time in the next few decades where an AI designs artificial organs and prosthetics that meet or exceed the efficiencies of the natural parts.
Personalized Medicine: One of the major problems with today’s drugs are the side affects. A drug is designed to have a certain beneficial affect on most people. That beneficial affect is more evident with some and less with others. And the negative side affects are also more evident in some and less in others. Soon, you will be taking a drug customized to your genome, body chemistry, age, weight, etc. This will eliminate or much reduce side affects while maximizing effectiveness of medicine. Expect this advancement with the next 10 years.
THE MIND: One of the most common statements heard when you ask about “How would you like to live to 100 or longer?” is the reply that they would only want to do so if they retained their memories and not be affected by age-related maladies like Alzheimer’s or Dementia. As I mentioned above, there is a lot of research on genetic factors that affect the brain as we age. For example, the Cholesteryl Ester Transfer Protein (CETP) gene variant increases blood levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL). This is often called “the good cholesterol” and it has been shown to help protect against Alzheimer’s disease. APOE ε4, a gene variant involved in cholesterol metabolism that is known to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s among those who carry it has also been identified. Researchers are working on drugs that can mimic the ability of the CETP protein to create affective treatments for retaining our mental abilities as we age. Another interesting study that was recently released revealed the longevity gene called “KLOTHO” improves brain skills such as thinking, learning and memory regardless of age, sex, or whether a person has a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. And a decade worth of studies had shown that the aforementioned GDF11 protein spurs the growth of blood vessels and neurons in the brain.
Many other genes are being studied for their possible ability to extend lifespan and general health as we age. Of particular interest is the IGF-1 gene, which seems to offer protection from cancer and diabetes. And a hormone produced by the brain called dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) is known to be important in memory, enhancing the immune system, and to be beneficial in preventing diabetes, obesity, and cancer. As we expand our knowledge of the genetic factors affect the brain and memory as we age, more treatments will become available to ensure we stay mentally sharp as we extend our lifespan.
One very interesting recent study shows that new brain cells erase old memories. This correlates well as to why childhood memories become increasing vague as we age. It’s like our brain is telling us that we need less and less of our earliest memories as we age so it gets rid of those memories and keeps the more current memories. Could it be that, as we enhance our ability to live much longer lives, humans will selectively choose which old memories to retain so as to make it possible to “make room for new memories”. Will we be able to target and retain those cherished older memories that define how we became who we are while still keeping the ability to gain new memories that let us develop who we will be in the future?
Maybe our technology will make it so we don’t have to limit ourselves to such biological constraints. Brain implants may offer us the ability to have super memory capabilities and prevent many age-related memory problems. A new $100 million dollar program to better understand the brain and how it stores and processes memories is underway. This program’s ultimate goal is to help the millions of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and the nearly 300,000 US military men and women who have sustained combat related traumatic brain injuries that have affected their memories. The idea would be to develop neuroprosthetic devices that can directly interface with the hippocampus part of the brain to restore memories. Current technologies are already assisting people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Technologies under development should ensure that those who live artificially enhanced lifespans retain the mental ability to enjoy doing so.
No one knows how long we’ll be able to extend human lifespan. We don’t know what affect it will have on families or society in general. Will it be limited to just the super rich? Will overpopulation lead to more wars and food shortages or will it energize our deep-seated nature of exploration and encourage us to spread out to other planets? It is heartening to realize that the longer one lives, the more options exist to help you live even longer. Each passing year brings us new answers and teaches us to ask new questions. While these questions and answers are never ending and will always lead to new advances, the general goal will stay the same: To extend lifespan AND to have that lifespan be healthy, vigorous and mentally sharp right up to the end.
By Ed Ruth