Does aging stop?

June 6th, 2011
By Dave Mosher

One scientist thinks so.

Aging and getting old are not the same process, and some of us can deliberately freeze the former during our 40s, 50s or 60s.

This is an idea put forth by Michael Rose of the University California, Irvine — a guy who creates freakishly long-lived “Methuselah” fruit flies for his day job.

Rose joined the stage at the World Science Festival* in New York City with three other gerontological experts: Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Foundation, Judith Campisi of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and Leonard Guarente of MIT.

Local TV-news legend Bill Ritter moderated the June 2nd chat, called “From Dust to…: The Radical New Science of Longevity.”

The dance of question-and-answer proceeded normally until about halfway through, when Rose dropped a figurative bomb.

Before we get there, however, a little background on each panelist’s talking points:

The long-bearded and very British de Grey argued that our bodies are like vintage cars. They’re pretty and shiny and new off the lot, but we slowly build up gunk and damage. Very thorough and very regular tune-ups, repairs, and cleaning, however, are paths to immortality — if we figure out how to perform this maintenance. We’re the same car after our upkeep but, as vintage buffs might frame it, we just have more history.

Campisi depicted aging as a disease that leads to late-onset diseases. We’re talking degenerative diseases defined by gradual loss of functions (e.g. Alzheimer’s), and then cancer. Cancer, she says, is a generative disease. A wacko cell, against all odds, gains a new function and spirals out of control and that’s that — all your body are belong to us. Therefore, solving the riddles of cancer will be key to achieving immortality.

Guarente portrayed aging as a predator (hmm, reminds me of this). The predator kills so late in life, however, that evolution doesn’t have any reason to respond. Through work with the Sir2 gene and the famous compound resveratrol (found in low doses in red wine and inspiration for sham nutrient supplements), Guarente has shown the body is, by evolution, naturally equipped to fight aging. He’s also demonstrated that you can detect such hardware by forcing animals to mate later in life, generation after generation. This selects for protection against aging because it interferes with baby-makin’ (the ultimate goal of evolution).

When Rose began to discuss his upcoming book, called “Does Aging Stop?”, things got interesting. (Anecdote: An elderly guy in the audience got so excited around this point that he jumped up, began shouting questions at Ritter and completely interrupted the panel. All was not lost, thanks to Ritter’s magical TV newsman powers — he wooed the errant fellow back into a passive and quiet sitting position.)

Rose’s line that perked everyone’s ears (mine included) went something like this:
“A lot of what the three of you think about the science of aging, I think is incorrect,” Rose flatly told Campisi, de Grey and Guarente. He went on to say how 20th-century gerontological science is dead.

Shortly after this came the book sales pitch, which I’ll paraphrase as: By reading this book, some of you can slow or freeze your biological age at around 60 years old.

Needless to say, feathers were ruffled, and the panel began to dig for detailed information from Rose. He responded by beating around the bush of ideas in the book — and taking generous opportunities to sell the tome more times than I can count on the fingers of my two hands.

For example, Rose explained “it” isn’t doesn’t work on people younger than 30 or 40. If you’re older than that, however, it takes about 3 hours a day to do. Another detail: It really only works for people of non-agricultural ancestry. I.e. Those not raised in the boom of agriculture in the past 10,000 years. Rose eventually leaked this hint: “The jargony trendy American term is ‘going paleo,'” he said.

In my mind, that eliminates most of the modern world. Practically all of us enjoy our cereal, beer, corn-syrup-injected drinks, etc. So if you’re an uncontacted tribe in the Amazonian jungle, I hope you’re paying attention.

But I like to think I’m a reasonable person so, in the pursuit of truth, I’ve requested a review copy. My expectation is that it’ll rehash much of what Rose and his co-authors have popularized in recent years. Many of the ideas in this article on Ray Kurzweil’s website are likely candidates.

Because you’ll see more from me on this in future, I’ll close  by saying the panelists all found Rose’s ideas very interesting.

“I’m bursting with curiosity to read this book,” Guarente said.

Ditto.

Image: gaspi *yg/Flickr

* I used to be the web editor of the Simons Foundation, a non-profit organization that contributed a boatload of money to make this event happen. If that matters to your interpretation of this post. Probably doesn’t, but just sayin’.

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