An end to ageing?

An end to ageing?

Aubrey de Grey thinks we can end the ageing process –  and it looks like he might just be right.

(Illustration and photography by Many Artists Who Do One Thing).

Awarded a PhD from Cambridge University for his 1999 book The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging, de Grey, Chief Science Officer at the California-based Sens Foundation, challenges the zeitgeist that getting old and frail is an unalterable part of human life. My exclusive interview with him appeared in the May, 2011, edition of the Freethinker.

PB: Why do you think we should end ageing?

ADG: The fundamental reason we should work to develop medicine against ageing is because ageing is bad for you. It makes people ill. There are many views on how long people might like to live, but there’s really no debate about the fact that people don’t like to get ill. They don’t like their loved ones to get ill. That’s the important thing.

It’s worth restating that the human body is just a machine. It’s a very complicated one, but it’s a machine all the same, which means that if you can stop it from getting ill, it’s not going to die. At the very least, it’ll have a far lower probability of dying any time soon than it would if it were ill.

There will be a longevity side-effect of the medical defeat of ageing, but it’s only a side-effect. I don’t work on longevity; I work on stopping people from getting ill.

PB: How do you reply to the claim that this is too far into wishful thinking to be taken seriously, or that it is at best in an “ante-chamber to science”?

ADG: The only way to reply to claims like that in relation to radical technological proposals of any sort is to look at the details.

We look at where we are now, where are we aiming to get to, what is the route from here to there, and we look specifically at what remains to be done, and seek these answers not on an abstract basis, but actually from the world’s leaders in these fields. That’s exactly what I’ve done.

PB: Who are the friends of ageing?

ADG: Most people, I find, are intrinsically apprehensive when one talks about the defeat of ageing. Fear of the unknown overwhelms them. They forget that we have a problem today; that we’d rather not get Alzheimer’s disease or heart disease and the like. They continue to worry about the sorts of things they envisage as drawbacks of a post-ageing world such as overpopulation, dictators living forever, or inability to pay pensions, or – whatever else it might be. I find this extremely frustrating, because ultimately it is a complete abandonment of any sense of proportion. I find it extraordinary that people are willing to indulge in this sort of denial.

But it’s not extraordinary from a psychological point of view because until quite recently – until I came along – it has been perfectly reasonable to take the view that the defeat of ageing was a very long way away simply because so many people had tried and failed spectacularly. So one has the choice to spend one’s life either preoccupied by this inevitable, ghastly thing that is going to happen to us, or, alternatively, to find some way of putting it out of our minds and getting on with out miserably short lives.

The latter is far preferable, because of course it’s better to be happy. So it doesn’t matter how irrational our rationalisations are; what psychological manipulation tricks we happen to use, so long as they succeed in tricking us into forgetting that we have a problem today. Until recently, I had viewed that with some sympathy. Only now, when we do have a way forward, and we really are within striking distance of defeating ageing, does that attitude become a massive part of the problem.

PB: How do you reply to Sherwin Nuland’s claim that “living for such long periods would undermine what it means to be human”?

ADG: It’s pathetic. The worst of it is that Nuland is a surgeon. He actually works in the medical profession. For a journalist to think in a wishy-washy way is one thing, but for a surgeon to do so is just inexcusable. Nuland doesn’t want to get Alzheimer’s disease any more than the rest of us do.

PB: How do you ground your moral system, and how did it lead you to conclude we should end ageing?

ADG: The way I think about my moral system is similar to the way I go about deciding about technological things, namely: I look for ways to factor out things, or to side-step my ignorance. One of the biggest difficulties I’ve had in engaging with specialists in the biology of ageing is that most of them are basic scientists, in that they’re driven by the desire to find things out for the sake of finding things out. They’re curiosity driven. I am very much goal-directed, focusing on developing technologies which benefit humanity.

A lot of the practical difference between those two styles comes down to the need for knowledge. Basic scientists are not very good at technology, because it’s hard to see where to stop, or where they’ve learnt enough. Technologists can be very bad at basic science because they don’t see the value in just finding things out, even if you don’t know what use it’s going to be.

There’s a big chasm between the two types of discipline. I think I span that chasm reasonably well, in that I understand the use of both ways of thinking. But I am primarily a goal-directed technologist, which means that I am interested in finding ways to achieve these ends, irrespective of answering questions we can’t yet.

With ageing, I attempt to find ways to repair the different types of molecular and cellular damage that accumulate in ageing, and if we can do it, we don’t need to know very much about how the different kinds of damage are caused by metabolism in the first place.

To come back in a rather roundabout way to the question, when it comes to my moral structure, it’s the same deal. So to take, for example, the existence or non-existence of some omnipotent being. During my teen years I went to and fro on this point. But starting from about seventeen, I’ve not been at all bothered by this point, I’ve been what I would call proudly agnostic.

I realised around that time that I would not undergo any significant change in how I ran my life in consequence of coming down on one side or the other of the question. I was already doing things for humanitarian purposes, and not because God was telling me so, but because I felt like doing them. I didn’t really know why I felt like it, but it never bothered me. I thought, “Well, if I’m doing God’s work already then it doesn’t matter whether I’m doing it for one reason or another.” That kind of reasoning has driven my approach to morality ever since.

PB: What do you think is the most difficult issue of an ageless humanity?

ADG: That’s a dangerous question, because we’re in no danger of getting to be a post-ageing species for at least 20 years, or perhaps a bit longer. Other technologies will develop in the meantime. So our ability to actually describe the world in twenty years in other ways is minimal. That means that we have to be extremely careful in getting any kind of firm view as to what our major problems will be. However, we can certainly identify candidates, such as overpopulation and environmental concerns, but they’re rather poorly thought out.

For example, the rate of change of the population as a result of the defeat of ageing is going to be pretty damn slow compared to other technological changes. After all, we’ll only be getting older one year per year. There won’t be any thousand-year-old people for nine hundred years whatever we do. There are more interesting things, by virtue of their arising from the widespread anticipation of living longer. For example, the economy will be structured very differently, because people will have different goals and expectations regarding what they need to do in terms of financial security, inheritance and so forth.

There’s a lot of interesting questions regarding risk, too. We probably won’t be so keen on going out there in fragile four-wheeled things if we know that the chance of our dying in them is more than from any other cause of death.

At the moment it’s very small compared to ageing. Ten or so years ago I predicted that driving would be outlawed when we defeat ageing, but I’ve since changed my mind. I realised that a better prediction is that we’ll simply throw money at the problem, and invest in much, much safer cars with the sorts of technology that we’ve actually already got, only it costs a lot. Right now it’s not considered good value for money, but we’ll change our minds.

PB: People like holding onto property and power. What is to stop monopolies on wealth or values, leading ultimately to societal stagnation?

ADG: On the wealth side I’m not worried at all. The overwhelming power in the world resides in democracies, and that’ll stay true. China is the only exception, but it won’t outpace all the other societies. The fact is that you and I have the same number of votes as Bill Gates and Richard Branson.

We’re not going to be in a position wherein the minority have power if we remain in a democratic world. Ultimately, there’s one thing that drives politicians and their policies, and that’s getting re-elected.

That’s about not pissing off the general public too much. So different countries have different levels of, say, taxation, but that’s because it reflects general public opinion. The US for example has lower taxes even on the rich, but that’s possible only because it doesn’t lose them votes. It will be the same deal in a post-ageing world. If the defeat of ageing and the consequent impact on longevity were to cause a significant shift in the distribution of wealth across people of different ages then there would be a popular response.

Similarly with regard to the way people run their careers. A lot of people are worried about retirement, but we must keep in mind that people’s chronological age and biological age will have been uncoupled.

So people will be able to retire at the same age as they do now, but they will neither be able, or even inclined, to retire permanently.

They’ll be able to go back to work at some point, and be able to do something different with, say, the next 40 years of their lives. Golf will lose its novelty value if you’re able to keep up with your daughter on the dancefloor.

But there may be a requirement, or some incentive, to encourage people to quit their jobs after a few decades even if they might otherwise not have done so, and to go into something different next time. There are all manner of different ideas, but this is unashamedly hand-waving speculation. The utility of such speculation is to point out that it’s ridiculous to get too concerned, simply because there are so many options out there.

PB: Even if we grant that it’s all conceptually sound, should we worry that the technology would only be available to a wealthy minority?

ADG: First of all, people will want these technologies. They will vote for them, and it will be impossible to restrict them. But there’s a second, more compelling reason, which is that these technologies will pay for themselves really really quickly. What we have at the moment with hi-tech medicines looks scary, because most of it is not available to most people. However, it’s not a remotely valid precedent, simply because these technologies don’t pay for themselves. The main things that need to be treated by expensive medicines are age-related diseases.

You treat people and you slightly postpone their progression into ill health, but only slightly. And then you have to spend a lot more money keeping them in that state until they die. So you spend more money than before to not a great deal of effect. Whereas, if we have medicines that actually work against ageing, then we have the converse situation. It’s a situation whereby people never reach a state in which they are consuming the enormous amount of medical resources that they currently do when they’re in a bad way.

All we’d have to do is periodically top people up with repair and maintenance therapies. If that were the whole story, we still wouldn’t have an argument because those repair and maintenance therapies do add up over time, but what also has to be taken into account are the other, indirect economic benefits.

First, the increased productivity of those who currently have to look after the elderly, and number two, that the elderly will be fit, able-bodied and contributing wealth to society rather than consuming wealth. We end up with an unequivocal situation in which it would be economically suicidal for any nation to not get people these therapies, irrespective of their ability to pay for them on the spot.

The precedent we do have today is not hi-tech medicine, but basic education. If a state doesn’t pay to have children educated, then twenty years down the line it’ll be economically crippled. That is an argument that works well even in tax-averse societies like the USA.

PB: When we confirmed this interview, I started asking around for people’s opinions on ending ageing. A very staunch view of one person I asked was that overpopulation was a problem already, and that he wouldn’t want to live in a world where he couldn’t have plenty of kids. He thought ending ageing would make large families impossible.

ADG: Well let’s take that view head on. I have my pithy response to those who say they don’t want to live in that world, which is “Well volunteered”.We won’t be tying people down and rejuvenating them by force.

My serious answer is that we must ask who should be choosing between the high death rate and the low birth rate if we accept that we really do have to make that choice.

There are no solutions that involve an exponentially increasing population. Should it be us who chooses, or should it be humanity of the future? That’s the choice we are given, because if we sit here today and think “Oh dear that doesn’t sound very nice, let’s not go there”, then we are delaying the date at which these therapies arrive, and so we are explicitly condemning a cohort of future humanity to an unnecessarily painful and early death, simply because we decided not to develop these therapies.

Whereas, conversely, if we get on and do our stuff and develop these therapies as soon as scientifically possible then the humanity of the future, the cohort in question, will have the choice. They may decide that actually they fancy having a lot of kids and that they should maintain a higher death rate, either by not using the therapies or some other means.

But they may, equally, decide that actually people should live a lot longer, or that we can live longer if we don’t want to have kids. I personally have never wanted to have kids, and others like me are entitled to that view, that we’d like to be our own next generation. It’s hard to argue that we should be denied our human right to carry on living by an argument that only really applies to other people.

PB: You consider it a human right? The right to live beyond what we might call a “natural” life span?

ADG: Remember that I said that the longevity component is a side-effect of being healthy. Now there are certain things we can put together here to make exactly that case.

Firstly, when ordinary people are healthy, we don’t think that they should be made to die. Not many people argue about that. Secondly, when ordinary people are not healthy we think that medicine should, in general, be applied to get them back to health, irrespective of how long ago they were born.

In our current state of medical expertise we have the problem that how long ago one was born has a significant impact on how effective our medical capabilities are. But if that were no longer true, if we could take someone who was unwell and could make them healthy again, irrespective of their chronological age, then we have a very different matter entirely.

If we accept that ageism is a bad thing, and that old people are people too, then it’s very difficult to argue against the case for developing and applying medicines that get people who are chronologically old into a good state of health, especially given that it will cause them to live longer.

PB: Charlie Chaplin, below, speaking at the end of The Great Dictator: “The hate of men will pass and dictators die and the power they took from the people will return to the people and so long as men die, liberty will never perish …” Do we want an immortal Kim Jong Il?


ADG: I get this question a lot, and so I have my glib answer prepared. The last time I checked, dictator was fairly high on the league table of risky jobs. Most dictators don’t die of ageing. I don’t enjoy universal agreement on this point. There are some people for whom it is the number one reason that scares them about a post-ageing world. The fact is that if there were more risk of them living longer because they didn’t have ageing, that would simply increase people’s inclination to make sure they die of something else. There are people who want to assassinate dictators anyway, but it’s seen as not worth the effort because they might only have ten or so years to wait anyway.

When we emerge into the world as adults, we want to be the next generation of people in charge. Much as we may love our parents, to always have our childhood authority figures watching over us looks pretty awful. Can it be avoided? Absolutely. It’s really a facet of periodic retirement. The way that things are today, the passing on of power, whether it be in government, family or business, is largely structured in the context of ageing. That’s fine as things stand today, but it’s ridiculous to suggest that we could not also have a structure for the turning over of power that did not rely on the existence of ageing. We already have elements of that in certain areas of society now.

One example is term limits in government. Within a family, there are people of different chronological ages with historically different power that arose from the fact that junior members of the family were initially incapable of taking care of themselves. So we have a slope whereby the older someone gets, the more power they have, the more knowledge they have and so on. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It could be that when you’re really an adult, say over 50, then everyone at that age would be treated as equals irrespective of how far over fifty they were and what their initial familial relationships were. This will involve a cultural shift, and it’ll be easier in the context of having fewer kids, since a progressively higher proportion of people will be over fifty.

PB: What question do you wish you were asked more often?

ADG: “How large a cheque should I write for you?” What I do is get the science behind the development of anti-ageing treatments done. That requires three things. Number one is that it requires a solid scientific foundation. So the reason we can make predictions about the future, albeit speculative ones, is because we can describe in detail what is already in existence and where we’re going from here. So a good level of precursor technology has to exist. Number two is that the people who are best placed to take that precursor technology forward in the appropriate directions must be enthusiastic about doing so. They have to be cognisant of the potential applicability of their work to the defeat of ageing in concert with other people’s work. Number three is that they have to have the resources to go about actually doing this.

I realised about 15 years ago that we now have the foundations in place, that’s when I developed the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) concept.

Number two is something that I’ve been working on whether or not I had any money over the past 15 years; getting to know the world’s scientific leaders in the relevant areas. We’re not missing people who know what they’re doing. So the only missing link is number three, the financial resources to get the work done. Biology is irreducibly expensive.


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