Extract published from Why We Die: The New Science of Aging and the Quest for Immortality by Venki Ramakrishnan published by Hachette India/Hodder & Stoughton

For centuries, our life expectancy hardly changed. But over the last 150 years, we have doubled it, primarily because we better understood the causes of disease and its spread, and improved public health. This progress allowed us to make enormous strides in extending our average life span, largely as a result of reducing infant mortality. But extending maximum life span—the longest we can expect to live even in the best of circumstances—is a much tougher problem. Is our life span fixed, or could we slow down or even abolish aging as we learn more about our own biology?

Today the revolution in biology that began with the discovery of genes more than a hundred years ago has led us to a crossroads. For the first time, recent research on the fundamental causes of aging is raising the prospect not merely of improving our health in old age but also of extending human life span.

Demographics is driving a huge effort to identify the causes of aging and to find ways to ameliorate its effects. Much of the world is faced with a growing elderly population, and keeping them healthy for as long as possible has become an urgent social imperative. The result is that after a long period in which it was a scientific backwater, aging research—or gerontology—has taken off.

In the last ten years alone, more than 300,000 scientific articles on aging have been published. More than 700 start-up companies have invested a combined many tens of billions of dollars to tackle aging—and this is not counting large, established pharmaceutical companies that have programs of their own.

This enormous effort raises a number of questions. Could we eventually cheat disease and death and live for a very long time, possibly many times our current life span? Certainly some scientists make that claim. And California billionaires, who love their lifestyles and don’t want the party to end, are only too willing to fund them.

The immortality merchants of today—the researchers who propose trying to extend life indefinitely and the billionaires who fund them—are really a modern take on the prophets of old, promising a long life largely free of the fear of encroaching old age and death. Who would have this life? The tiny fraction of the population who could afford it? What would be the ethics of treating or modifying humans to achieve this? And if it becomes widely available, what sort of society would we have? Would we be sleepwalking into a future without considering the potential social, economic, and political consequences of humans living well beyond our current life spans? Given recent advances and the enormous amount of money pouring into aging research, we must ask where this research is leading us, as well as what it suggests about the limits of human beings.

I have spent most of my long career studying the problem of how proteins are made in the cells that make up our body. The problem is so central that it impinges on virtually every aspect of biology, and over the last few decades, we have discovered that much of aging has to do with how our body regulates the production and destruction of proteins. But when I started my career, I had no idea that anything I did would be connected with the problem of why we age and die. Although fascinated by the explosion in aging research that has led to some very real breakthroughs in our understanding, I have also watched with growing alarm the enormous amount of hype associated with it, which has led to widespread marketing of dubious remedies that have a highly tenuous connection with the actual science. Yet they continue to flourish because they capitalize on our very natural fear of growing old and disabled and eventually dying.

Considering how rapidly the field is advancing, the enormous amount of both public and private money invested in it, and the resulting hype, I thought it was an appropriate moment for someone like me, who works in molecular biology but has no real skin in the game, to take a hard, objective look at our current understanding of aging and death. Because I know many of the leading figures in this area personally, I have been able to have many frank conversations to gain an honest and deeper understanding of how they see aging research in its many aspects. I have deliberately refrained from talking to those scientists who have made their positions clear in their own books, especially when they are also tied closely to commercial ventures on aging, but I have discussed their highly publicized views.

Given the pace of discovery, any book that focuses just on the most recent aging research would be out of date even before it was published. Moreover, the most recent discoveries in any area of science often do not hold up to scrutiny and have to be revised or discarded. Accordingly, I have tried to concentrate on some of the essential principles behind the most promising approaches to understanding and tackling aging. These principles should not only stand the test of time, but also help readers realize how we got to our present state of knowledge. I also give a historical background to some of the basic research that led to our current understanding.

We are all concerned about how we will face the end of life—less so when we are young and feel immortal, but more so at my age of seventy-one, when I find that I can do only with difficulty, or not at all, things I could do easily even just ten or twenty years ago. It sometimes feels that life is like being constrained to a smaller and smaller portion of a house, as doors to rooms that we would like to explore slowly close shut as we age. It is natural to ask what the prospects are that science can pry those doors open again.

I hope to probe, as well, the crucial ethical question that runs beneath anti-aging research:

Even if we can, should we?

Extracted with permission from Hachette India/Hodder & Stoughton

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