Eternal life: dream or reality?

In 1797, Dr. Hufeland (known as “one of the most sensible minds in Germany”), who had studied the topic of life expectancy for a decade, presented his work The Art of Life Extension to the world. Among the many factors associated with longevity, he singled out: a balanced diet that is rich in vegetables and excludes meat and sweet pastries; active lifestyle; good dental care weekly bathing in warm water with soap; good dream; fresh air; as well as the factor of heredity. At the end of his essay, translated for the literary magazine American Review, the doctor suggested that “the duration of human life could be doubled compared to current rates.”

Hufeland estimates that half of all children born died before their tenth birthday, an alarmingly high mortality rate. However, if a child managed to cope with smallpox, measles, rubella and other childhood diseases, he had a good chance of living into his thirties. Hufeland believed that, under ideal conditions, life could stretch for two hundred years.

Should these claims be regarded as anything more than the whimsical imagination of an 18th-century doctor? James Waupel thinks so. “Life expectancy is increasing by two and a half years every decade,” he says. “That’s twenty-five years in every century.” Vaupel – Director of the Laboratory of Survival and Longevity of the Institute of Demographic Research. Max Planck in Rostock, Germany, and he studies the principles of longevity and survival in human and animal populations. According to him, over the past 100 years, the picture of life expectancy has changed significantly. Before 1950, much of life expectancy was achieved by combating high infant mortality. Since then, however, mortality rates have declined for people in their 60s and even 80s.

In other words, it’s not just that many more people are now experiencing infancy. People in general are living longer—much longer.

Age depends on a combination of factors

Globally, the number of centenarians – people over 100 years of age – is projected to increase 10-fold between 2010 and 2050. As Hufeland stated, whether you make it to this point depends on how long your parents live; that is, the genetic component also affects lifespan. But the increase in centenarians cannot be explained by genetics alone, which obviously hasn’t changed much in the last couple of centuries. Rather, it is the multiple improvements in our quality of life that collectively increase our chances of living longer and healthier—better health care, better medical care, public health measures such as clean water and air, better education, and better living standards. “This is mainly due to the population’s greater access to medicines and funds,” Vaupel says.

However, the gains achieved through better health care and living conditions still do not satisfy many people, and the desire to increase human life expectancy does not think to fade away.

One popular approach is calorie restriction. Back in the 1930s, researchers observed animals that were fed different levels of calories and noticed that this affected their lifespan. However, subsequent research has shown that dietary caloric content is not necessarily associated with longevity, and the researchers note that it all depends on the complex interplay of genetics, nutrition, and environmental factors.

Another big hope is the chemical resveratrol, which is produced by plants, especially in the skin of grapes. However, one can hardly say that the vineyards are fraught with a fountain of youth. This chemical has been noted to provide health benefits similar to those seen in animals with calorie restriction, but so far no study has shown that resveratrol supplementation can increase human lifespan.

Life without borders?

But why do we get old at all? “Every day we suffer from different kinds of damage and we don’t fully heal it,” Vaupel explains, “and this accumulation of damage is the cause of age-related diseases.” But this is not true for all living organisms. For example, hydras – a group of simple jellyfish-like creatures – are able to repair almost all damage in their body and easily kill cells that are too damaged to be healed. In humans, these damaged cells can cause cancer.

“Hydras are focusing resources primarily on restoration, not reproduction,” Vaupel says. “Humans, on the contrary, direct resources primarily to reproduction – this is a different strategy for survival at the species level.” People may die young, but our incredible birth rates allow us to overcome these high death rates. “Now that infant mortality is so low, there is no need to devote so many resources to reproduction,” Vaupel says. “The trick is to improve the recovery process, not channel that energy into more quantity.” If we can find a way to stop the steady increase in damage to our cells – to start the process of so-called negligible, or insignificant aging – then perhaps we will not have an upper age limit.

“It would be great to enter a world where death is optional. Right now, essentially, we are all on death row, even though most of us have done nothing to deserve it,” says Gennady Stolyarov, transhumanist philosopher and author of the controversial children’s book Death Is Wrong, which encourages young minds to reject the idea. that death is inevitable. Stolyarov is categorically convinced that death is just a technological challenge to humanity, and all that is needed to win is sufficient funding and human resources.

Driving force for change

Telomeres are one of the areas of technological intervention. These ends of chromosomes shorten each time cells divide, putting a severe limit on how many times cells can replicate.

Some animals do not experience this shortening of telomeres – hydras are one of them. However, there are good reasons for these restrictions. Random mutations can allow cells to divide without shortening their telomeres, leading to “immortal” cell lines. Once out of control, these immortal cells can develop into cancerous tumors.

“One hundred and fifty thousand people in the world die every day, and two-thirds of them die from causes related to aging,” says Stolyarov. “Thus, if we developed technologies that trigger the process of negligible aging, we would save one hundred thousand lives a day.” The author cites gerontology theorist Aubrey de Grey, a celebrity among life extension seekers, stating that there is a 50% chance of achieving negligible aging within the next 25 years. “There is a strong possibility that this will happen while we are still alive and even before we experience the worst effects of aging,” says Stolyarov.

Stolyarov hopes that a flame will flare up from a spark of hope. “What is needed right now is a decisive push to dramatically accelerate the pace of technological change,” he says. “Now we have a chance to fight, but in order to succeed, we must become a force for change.”

In the meantime, while researchers battle aging, people should remember that there are surefire ways to avoid the two leading causes of death in the Western world (heart disease and cancer) – exercise, healthy eating, and moderation when it comes to alcohol and red meat. Very few of us actually manage to live by such criteria, perhaps because we think that a short but fulfilling life is the best choice. And here a new question arises: if eternal life were still possible, would we be ready to pay the corresponding price?

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