Thursday, January 20, 2005

Extending Life

One of my favorite lines of dialogue in a TV show or movie took place in the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data, the android, was escorting Doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy down the hallway of the starship while making casual conversation about the doctor's extreme age. He was 132.

After Data mentioned his age, Bones uttered one of his characteristic acerbic remarks, which prompted Data to ask if the subject of his age was troubling to him. Bones then replies, "Troubling? What's so troubling about not having died?"

When the oldest people on record seldom live beyond the ripe old age of 120, someone in his 130s may seem quite ancient. But the voyages of Star Trek are supposed to be taking place more than 300 years into the future. It struck me that Bones, at 132, should certainly have been thought of as a senior citizen, but not as particularly noteworthy because of his age.

I would hope that, by then, people will routinely live 150 to 200 years, perhaps longer. After all, life expectancies are gradually inching upward and have been every decade for at least 100 years.

The aging process has always fascinated doctors and scientists. Why do our bodies deteriorate as they age? After all, we grow a whole new set of cells every few months, so it's not like our bodies are composed of the same cells we had when we were born. The cells themselves mature, age, die, and are replaced. So why does the body as a whole deteriorate?

Some research has pointed to a likely culprit in the aging process: free radicals. These are the nasty remnants of the body's metabolic processes, the waste products of living that accumulate in our tissues and wreak havoc on our system.

They will combine with almost any tissue they come in contact with, altering it in the process. They destroy tissue, cause cancer, and are generally rather destructive. And there is nothing that can prevent their manufacture in the body as by-products of our metabolism.

There is, however, a way to "mop them up" before they can do much damage. Scientists have learned that the ingestion of substances known as antioxidants can react with these free radicals and allow them to be harmlessly excreted from the body.

Research involving roundworms shows that the life spans of these tiny creatures can be easily doubled by injecting them with powerful antioxidants. And they don't seem to simply live longer, but they seem to remain active during their extended maturity, too.

Of course, it is quite a leap from the lowly nematode to a human being. But the science is still the same. It should also, theoretically, work with humans.

The time may not be too far off when we can, if we choose, take a pill a day to extend our lives well past 100. And there is no reason to believe that those future centenarians will be feeble. Extending life does not necessarily mean extending the feeblest time of life. It may mean extending that period of life we call middle age. Being old and feeble will last no longer than it already does, it will just be pushed several years into the future.

It's true that there are negative aspects of extending the human life span. The earth is already becoming overpopulated. Making it possible for humans to routinely live to be 150 or 200 years old will probably aggravate the overpopulation problem. But that is something to be addressed separately. No matter how old we live to be, producing only two children per couple will still produce a stable population.

At any rate, I certainly am willing to give this life-extending technology a try, should it ever come to fruition. I want to live long enough to see if we can ever really develop Star-Trek-style matter transporters. I've always had a fear of flying. But once the technology is perfected, I might could stand to be "beamed."

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