Forever Young

This is an Ankh - the ancient Egyptian symbol of life. They believed in immortality and the afterworld that was filled with comfort and happiness, and were probably anxious to get there. I don’t. This is why I write this post.

Life expectancy is constantly rising; the world average is almost at 70, and in some modern countries it is already above 80. Still, a person living for more than 90 years is very impressive, and reaching 100 is extremely rare. What would it take to break this 2 digits barrier? What would it take to break the 3 digits barrier?

Surely, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and many other problems need to be addressed, but assuming all these are solved, can we live to be 500 years old?

First, we’ll probably need to address the “end replication problem”. The Telomere is a region at the end of each chromosome (in humans it’s a repetitive sequence of TTAGGG). Because of some complex mechanical reasons, every time the DNA is replicated, the Telomeres at the ends of the chromosomes are shortened, until the point where there are no more Telomeres left, and the DNA is no longer able to replicate itself. Surely, this limits our life span, since the length of the Telomeres only decreases from the moment we are just a single cell within our mother’s body. Note that cancer cells can overcome this problem to create cells that can replicate indefinitely, but we need to solve this problem on healthy cells as well.

Assuming we’ll solve the Telomeres issue, DNA damage seems like the next big problem to overcome. Our DNA is constantly getting corrupted by random mutations; additions, omissions and dislocations of DNA sections; viruses inserting their DNA sequence into ours; attacks by free radicals; cancerous materials like those found in polluted air and cigarette smoke; electro-magnetic radiation in sunlight (UV radiation), X-ray and radioactive materials. Your perfect DNA is accumulating damage from day one, eventually resulting in problems like cancer.

We can try and fix the damaged DNA by applying sophisticated state-of-the-art gene therapy technologies, but I’m afraid we’re many decades (centuries?) away from a total understanding of our DNA, and no one really knows what will happen if we’ll start messing with it. It seems like our best chance lies in laboratories researching stem cells (cells that retain the ability to renew themselves through cell division and can differentiate into a diverse range of specialized cell types). I’m talking about rejuvenating the whole body (mind included). A few years ago, I saw a documentary about trying to treat Parkinson’s disease by injecting stem cells into a patient’s brain. It only helped to a small degree and for a very short period of time, but still it was very impressive. Stem cells might be the Holy Grail in our quest for partial immortality.

It will take a few decades, but the 2 and later 3 digits barriers will be broken - I promise. There is a common Hebrew greeting announced on every birthday that goes something like “may you live 120 years”. I foresee a day when this blessing will turn into a curse.

p.s. Money’s green - should they test for color blindness when hiring for NYSE?


WalksFarWoman said...

Thought provoking article and that's from someone who knows little about science. But what's the point of living when you must depend on others to see you through each day. DNA breakthroughs must be light years away and regardless of how much better the body could be improved to endure a longer life, the mind is a different matter. 120 years? Thank you but no thank you. :)

Uri Kalish said...

Good point!

I've added this to the post:

"I’m talking about rejuvenating the whole body (mind included). A few years ago, I saw a documentary about trying to treat Parkinson’s disease by injecting stem cells into a patient’s brain. It only helped to a small degree and for a very short period of time, but still it was very impressive. Stem cells might be the Holy Grail in our quest for partial immortality."


Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

URI, TOTALLY FASCINATING!!! I love the content on your blog. :D

Stem cells will make a difference in the medical world. In some ways the medical world is primitive and barbaric. I hope a new age in medicine happens when people don't have to suffer so much from diseases.

I can't believe they haven't figured out the common cold yet.


Uri Kalish said...


p.s. Although our immune system is quite amazing, the common cold virus has a very high rate of mutations, so every winter there are several new variations that our body never encountered before.

yair.h said...

There are two questions here: how? and why?

Indeed our bodies wear off. There is a strong connection to oxygenation processes. The oxygen we need so much kills us. The more dominant reason for us to die is because our genes tell us to get old.

I think it would take centuries before we will learn to manipulate these processes because there are so many of them and they must be in balance.

Nature is built on life, death and recycling. We do 'live' after we die. Nature quickly recycles us to be flowers, birds and trees.

We don't want people to live so long because of two reasons:
First, they would probably think they are so damn smart... :-)
and more importantly, their existence creates a 'bottle neck'. Even now we are short on space and resources for everyone.

There is a simple way to live forever - having children. They have many of our genes and much of our character and even memories.

Uri Kalish said...

Hi Yair,

As you probably know, there is a debate in the scientific community whether or not we actually have “aging genes”, or is it just an accumulating damage.

The human race will obviously have to expand to other planets in the next centuries to solve the limited space and resources problems.

“I don't want to achieve immortality through my work... I want to achieve it through not dying...”
- Woody Allen

Lynette said...

This was a very interesting article! Great blog, very attractive! Thanks for stopping by and visiting mine. :)

Bob Johnson said...

Very interesting, I had read of some of this before, the key hinges on whether or not we can move out to the stars fast enough to handle the increase in population, That's assuming we don't destroy ourselves first.

Uri Kalish said...

My vacation is over!
I must go back to the army.

In the meantime, you can entertain yourself by reading my old posts; and don't forget to leave comments!

c'ya in 2 weeks.

yair.h said...

Uri Kalish said...
"As you probably know, there is a debate in the scientific community whether or not we actually have “aging genes”, or is it just an accumulating damage."

What I ment was that our overall architecture (genes) is not built to live so long. Take a paper bag for example. It is built to carry groceries not more than a couple of times. Think how hard it is to change the paper bag so it could carry groceries 1000 times without losing its properties. Now take this number and multiply it by the fraction (human/paper_bag)

Stay safe...

Anonymous said...

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famous quotes

Nim said...

Woah! A post that is both scientific and philosophical. My favourite kind! As already suggested, why would we want to live to be so old..?! Sometimes, I think that there is so much to see and do and learn and at other times, when I think about the things I have already seen and learned in my 37 years, I cannot imagine living for another 93 years to add to it all. Maybe that's just me.

Also, I like your header and your icon


Uri Kalish said...

I'm back!

Uri Kalish said...

Your paper bag is about to go nylon.

Famous Quotations,
I’m honored!!!

Wouldn’t you like to visit every country in the world? Learn how to be an astronaut and go to space? Read the best 1,000 books ever written? See the best 1,000 movies ever made? Play the piano, guitar and drums? Learn more languages? Why wouldn’t you? Because you have only 30-40 years left to live! Now how about if I’ll give you an extra 500 years of quality living?

Nim said...

Hi Uri

You know me so well already! That's the paradox in the question isn't it...?! Wouldn't I like to do all those things..? Yes of course I would. That's is how I feel right now at this age, a youthful 37. But would I still want to do those things when I'm 90 or in another 93 years time..? Who knows.


GR Klein said...

Hi Uri,
Very interesting post, and when you look at the major causes of death you can see that many of these factors are related to lifestyle issues. The human brain is an immensely complicated organ and unfortunately we are not born with an instruction manual. The true potential of humanity is as yet unrealised. My father had cancer and was given stem cell therapy, he had grey hair before he got sick and he has now recovered his hair has grown back black, and he tells me his eye sight is improving. Stem cells are the tip of the ice berg, we have much to learn. Cheers GR

Zawadi said...

I think I would want to live long enough to see grandchildren grow up...100 yrs at least... After that my Duty is done.. Cared for child, spoiled the grandchild and now it's time to leave them with good memories.
I don't know if a "healthy" human mind can deal with the ills of life for long... lol

Ankit Shukla said...

good point for living for 500 yrs by changing telomere and DNA. I hope they could also solve that aging problem else living more then even 150 will be a problem. anyway as u said it will happen in centuries to come so live ur present life to best.

Uri Kalish said...

You could always end your life if extremely bored, but don’t forget all these reruns of The Simpsons that can keep you busy for a century or two…

GR Klein,
I agree. Stem cells research is our best hope for rejuvenating our aging bodies, although a little bit more expensive than a bottle of hair dye...

I guess our children would be quite relieved after waiting 500 years for their inheritance...

Ankit Shukla,
In the meanwhile I’ll carpe diem, but my master plan is to keep blogging till the dawn of the next millennium...

Ed said...

Great Article! Good insight.
Grace and Peace,

La delirante said...

Hello! Found your blog today and am already looking forward to reading more posts :)

Very nice and thought provoking post. It made me think of my grandmother who is already 90 and very healthy. She always led very healthy life eating lots of fruits and vegetables. I think that is her secret :) Hopefully she will be able to have her 100th birthday or more! :)

Hope you will pay me a visit to my blog one of these days.

Have a lovely day,

Lisa Thurmond said...

Great post, Uri. It seems that all the antiaging stuff that's floating around on the Net can only (if at all)impact just ONE part of the aging equation. Very informative read. I'm glad I visited your blog!

Uri Kalish said...

Ed, La delirante and Lisa,
Thanks :)