By David Yount
Scripps Howard News Service
April 03, 2005
British critic Bryan Appleyard asks us to imagine a fictional girl, age 11, who already enjoys the advantages of having survived childhood diseases, had grandparents who lived into their 80s, and whose own parents are happily married and can afford private medical insurance for her. Moreover, her Mom and Dad see to it that she maintains healthy habits.
According to current projections, this girl should live in tolerable good health well into her 80s, some years longer than her male peers. But wait: something is on the horizon that could change the actuarial scales so radically that she could live to the age of 1,200.
That "something" will emerge perhaps eight years from now, when a healthy 2-year-old laboratory mouse successfully resists the (until then) inevitable damage of cell division and depletion. That mouse will have been rejuvenated by stem cell therapy, and the little critter's DNA will have been manipulated to curtail damaging mutations.
Genetically, mice are amazingly similar to humans, but they live vastly shorter lives. Untreated, our mouse would die by the age of 3, most likely of cancer. But when the mouse is still a frisky 5-year-old, the world takes notice. The public demands that governments fund the research that will apply the lessons of mouse life extension to humans. At the same time, sensing that decline and death are no longer inevitable, people around the world begin to take better care of themselves.
Sure enough, by this scenario, in 2035, when our fictional girl is on the cusp of middle age, human rejuvenation becomes available. After treatment, she both looks and feels 30 again, and, with continued therapy, never ages.
Nevertheless, she may not live forever, because (as Bernard Shaw predicted in his play Back to Methuselah) she will still be vulnerable to accidental death or violence. Forty-one-year-old gerontologist Aubrey de Grey of Cambridge University believes that there are people alive today who will, with treatment, break through the theoretical 120-year maximum life span to live at least 1,000 years, fully functional, assuming they maintain good health habits during that extended life span.
The trick for those now living, according to the scientists, is to do whatever is necessary to extend our lives until the time that this treatment becomes widely available some 30 years hence. Appleyard offers this list of healthy commandments: Eliminate smoking, sugar, animal fat, and salt, and risky activities. Exercise and eat vegetables that grow above ground, as well as nuts. Take a child's aspirin daily, and keep to a sparse diet.
Although I follow these guidelines, I'm already in my 70s and have an array of ailments that makes me a poor candidate for such immortality. With the lessons of Easter still fresh in mind, I remain resigned to death and hopeful of resurrection.