27 Jun Can We Live Longer but Stay Younger? (ADAM GOPNIK)
With greater longevity, the quest to avoid the infirmities of aging is more urgent than ever.
Coughlin hates what he calls “the narrative,” according to which new tech appeals to newer people. “There’s no reason for this enormous prejudice in favor of youthfulness in Silicon Valley and the tech industry,” he says.
He also hates the misallocation of resources based on mere myths. “We have a belief that we send out our elderly to institutions. The fact of the matter is that less than ten per cent of the elderly go into nursing homes or assisted living. The senior-housing industry is building inventory meant for seniors, but eighty-seven per cent of retirement-age people want to stay in the same home where they have the three ‘M’s: marriage, mortgage, and memories. The problem is that they can’t. Not when the model is a two-story house with a bedroom and the bathroom upstairs. If we can solve the stairs problem, we won’t need new housing.”
It’s the failure of industry and engineering to address the actual problems of aging—the problems summed up by the aggravations of the agnes suit—that makes Coughlin impatient with scientific speculations about extending life. “We’ve already extended life! What we need is not to put off death a little longer but to write a new narrative of aging as it could be.”
Aging has no point; it is the infuriating absence of a point. Having reproduced ourselves externally, we fall down on replicating ourselves internally. The processes of cellular replication that allow us to be boats rebuilt even as they cross the ocean cease acting efficiently, because they have no evolutionary reward for acting efficiently. They are like code monkeys in a failing tech business: they can mess up everything, absent-mindedly forget to code for the color of our hair or the elasticity of our skin, and no penalty is exacted for the failure. We’ve already made all the kids we are going to make.
That, at least, is the classic explanation of why we age, proposed by the British Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, in the nineteen-fifties. Once we have passed reproductive age, the genes can get sloppy about copying, allowing mutations to accumulate, because natural selection no longer cares. And so things fall apart. The second law of thermodynamics gets us all in the end. The car or the Cuisinart works for a decade, breaks down, and can’t be fixed; rust never sleeps, and we do.
And yet some trees go on for centuries, collecting rings, growing older without really aging. Some species—though those are often hard-to-track creatures, like Arctic sharks—may live for centuries. Even if aging at some speed is ultimately inevitable, what happens when we age is far from self-evident.
It may be that the real trick is not how much we age but how much we don’t. Human beings are outliers: we live much longer than other creatures of our size, defying the general truth that smaller animals live shorter lives than bigger ones.
Those extra thirty years of life, though won by advances in medicine and public health, are winnable because, given a little chance, we just go on. The big question of human aging then becomes not why we fall apart but why nature lets us hold together for so long.
One evolutionary rationale is that there is something essential to human groups, with the slowly unfolding infancy of their young, in keeping the old folks around even when they can’t make more young folks.
Evolutionary biologists tend to doubt whether nature cares about the fitness of groups, rather than the fitness of individuals, but the model of “kin selection”—which gives weight to the fact that helping my relatives helps preserve my genes—suggests that there might be evolutionary advantages in having grandmothers around to take care of kids and remember where the fish go every twenty years. People might not have a death sentence in their genes.
Where fifty years ago it was taken for granted that the problem of age was a problem of the inevitable running down of everything, entropy working its worst, now many researchers are inclined to think that the problem is “epigenetic”: it’s a problem in reading the information—the genetic code—in the cells.
To use a metaphor of the Harvard geneticist David Sinclair, the information in each cell is digital and perfectly stored; it’s the “readout,” the active expression of the information, that’s effectively analogue, and subject to occlusion by the equivalent of dirt and scratches on the plastic surface of a CD. Clear those off, he says, and the younger you, still intact in the information layer, jumps out—just as the younger Beatles jump out from a restored and remastered CD.
We don’t have to micromanage the repair, the Harvard molecular biologist George Church observes: “If we think epigenetically, we can see that we can make the cells industriously do the repair themselves.” Already a legendary figure for devising genomic-sequencing techniques—it must help that he’s a scientific eminence who has the aura of one, with a grand Darwinian beard and a slow-spoken orotundity—Church gained further attention for his experiments in trying to resurrect extinct species, particularly the woolly mammoth. Perhaps aging is not a condition to be managed but a mistake to be fixed.
Right now, we live well, and then we don’t live well, and then we die. The most that science seems to offer us is this: We’ll live well, and then we’ll die.
In the past, as science and medicine annihilated old curses, we worried about losing the corresponding compensating benefits. And yet pain in childbirth, which some thought to be foundational to what we call Judeo-Christian morals, could be largely subdued without any loss to mother love; consumption was cured without lessening the romance of romantic poetry. Perhaps the loss of aging will be one more in that series, where, like all the other super-centenarians, we will dance and make love and ski, sharp-eyed, right to the edge of the still inevitable cliff. In the word cloud of concepts associated with aging that hangs in the AgeLab, the word “death” appears only in a tiny balloon, associated with the stray and bubbling thoughts of younger men—much smaller than the other words, lost among larger clouds of hope.
By Adam Gopnik
May 13, 2019