A modest proposal to slow aging and extend healthy life.

What's to come?
Nov. 12 2010 10:29 AM

A Wrinkle in Time

A modest proposal to slow aging and extend healthy life.

1_123125_2267723_futuretense_logo_allabbrevoneline

This piece arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. A Future Tense conference on life extension will be held at the New America Foundation on Tuesday, Nov. 16. (For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the NAF Web site.) Read more of Slate's coverage on longevity.

44_oldpersontn
How can we stay healthy longer?

We have grown accustomed to the wonders of clean water, indoor plumbing, laser surgery, genetic engineering, artificial joints, replacement body parts, and the much longer lives that accompany them. Yet we should remember that the vast majority of humans ever born died before the age of 10 from an infectious disease. Humanity responded to this high risk of early death with ingenious advances in public health and medical technology, the result of which was a dramatic 30-year boost in life expectancy in the 20th century. The longevity revolution that followed led to a trade-off for which the world was unprepared: the rise of an aged population suffering from multiple chronic degenerative diseases.

Older people may have always existed throughout history, but they were rare. Aging as we know it, and the diseases and disorders that accompany it, represent new phenomena—products of 20th century resourcefulness. When infectious diseases were largely vanquished in the developed world, few anticipated the extent to which chronic degenerative diseases would rise. We call them heart disease, cancer, stroke, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, and many more, but we might as well collectively use one word to describe them all—aging.

Advertisement

Aging may be defined as the accumulation of random damage to the building blocks of life—especially to DNA, certain proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids (fats)—that begins early in life and eventually exceeds the body's self-repair capabilities. This damage gradually impairs the functioning of cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems, thereby increasing vulnerability to disease and giving rise to the characteristic manifestations of aging, such as loss of muscle and bone mass, decline in reaction time, compromised hearing and vision, and reduced elasticity of the skin.

This accretion of molecular damage comes from many sources, including, ironically, the life-sustaining processes involved in converting the food we eat into usable energy. Aging should most appropriately be thought of as an inadvertent byproduct of operating the machinery of life, which means that evolution could not have given rise to these processes directly. Because nature does not have a program for aging and death, this makes it possible to conceive of interventions that influence the length and quality of our lives, but more importantly, it means evolution has given humanity an entrée into manipulating the speed with which we age.

Aging bodies with chronic diseases are not the same as young bodies with independently acquired infectious diseases. Yet medicine continues to act as if the diseases of aging are separate from the consequences of aging itself. It's true that modern medicine has produced miracle treatments for some chronic diseases, such as dialysis for kidney failure, stents and bypass surgery for coronary artery disease, and new diagnostic procedures for detecting and successfully treating disease early. And we are learning how modifying behavioral risk factors can postpone the onset and progression of chronic diseases, such as keeping cholesterol in check to help prevent heart disease, losing weight to help prevent Type II diabetes, and quitting smoking to lower the risk of cancer.

However, while the risk of many infectious diseases can theoretically be reduced to zero through human interventions, even a complete control of behavioral risk factors for chronic degenerative diseases still leaves a population vulnerable to the destructive biological processes of aging. Humanity is paying a heavy price for the privilege of living extended lives—a new and much more complicated relationship with disease.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.