Some animals live for 400 years. What can they teach us about extending life?

What's to come?
Nov. 12 2010 10:31 AM

Really Old Animals

Some animals live for 400 years. What can they teach us about extending life?

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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.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

Slide Show: Animal Longevity. Click image to launch.

For several decades, scientists have been coming up with ways—through gene manipulation, pharmaceutical intervention, and dietary restriction—to extend the lives of laboratory animals. But as Steven Austad, a biologist at the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies * in the University of Texas system and an expert in "comparative gerontology," writes, these manipulations "pale in comparison to the remarkable diversity of lifespan produced by evolution." His Barshop Institute colleague Rochelle Buffenstein points out that maximum life span across the animal kingdom varies 40,000-fold. For example, some adult mayflies live less than an hour; some shellfish for centuries. Among mammals alone, longevity varies 1,000-fold.

The average fruit fly lives a little more than a month, so scientists' ability to double its lifespan is a remarkable achievement that doesn't make much of a dent in the lifespan of the scientists who study it. But Austad says we may be missing something by focusing so much of our longevity research on animals—flies, worms, mice—that are "demonstrably unsuccessful at combating basic aging processes." He suggests we put more effort into understanding molecular solutions nature has devised to help long-living creatures evade the grim reaper. Click here to read a slide show on animal longevity.

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Correction, Nov. 13, 2010: This article originally misstated the name of the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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