|Last Updated: Friday, 3 December, 2004, 00:01 GMT |
'We will be able to live to 1,000'
Ageing is a physical phenomenon happening to our bodies, so at some point in the future, as medicine becomes more and more powerful, we will inevitably be able to address ageing just as effectively as we address many diseases today.
I claim that we are close to that point because of the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) project to prevent and cure ageing.
It is not just an idea: it's a very detailed plan to repair all the types of molecular and cellular damage that happen to us over time.
And each method to do this is either already working in a preliminary form (in clinical trials) or is based on technologies that already exist and just need to be combined.
We will still die, of course - from crossing the road carelessly, being bitten by snakes, catching a new flu variant etcetera - but not in the drawn-out way in which most of us die at present.
So, will this happen in time for some people alive today? Probably. Since these therapies repair accumulated damage, they are applicable to people in middle age or older who have a fair amount of that damage.
I think the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already.
It is very complicated, because ageing is. There are seven major types of molecular and cellular damage that eventually become bad for us - including cells being lost without replacement and mutations in our chromosomes.
Each of these things is potentially fixable by technology that either already exists or is in active development.
'Youthful not frail'
The length of life will be much more variable than now, when most people die at a narrow range of ages (65 to 90 or so), because people won't be getting frailer as time passes.
These numbers are guesses, of course, but they're guided by the rate at which the young die these days. If you are a reasonably risk-aware teenager today in an affluent, non-violent neighbourhood, you have a risk of dying in the next year of well under one in 1,000, which means that if you stayed that way forever you would have a 50/50 chance of living to over 1,000.
And remember, none of that time would be lived in frailty and debility and dependence - you would be youthful, both physically and mentally, right up to the day you mis-time the speed of that oncoming lorry.
Should we cure ageing?
Curing ageing will change society in innumerable ways. Some people are so scared of this that they think we should accept ageing as it is. I think that is diabolical - it says we should deny people the right to life.
The right to choose to live or to die is the most fundamental right there is; conversely, the duty to give others that opportunity to the best of our ability is the most fundamental duty there is. There is no difference between saving lives and extending lives, because in both cases we are giving people the chance of more life. To say that we shouldn't cure ageing is ageism, saying that old people are unworthy of medical care.
People also say we will get terribly bored but I say we will have the resources to improve everyone's ability to get the most out of life. People with a good education and the time to use it never get bored today and can't imagine ever running out of new things they'd like to do. And finally some people are worried that it would mean playing God and going against nature. But it's unnatural for us to accept the world as we find it. Ever since we invented fire and the wheel, we've been demonstrating both our ability and our inherent desire to fix things that we don't like about ourselves and our environment. We would be going against that most fundamental aspect of what it is to be human if we decided that something so horrible as everyone getting frail and decrepit and dependent was something we should live with forever.
If changing our world is playing God, it is just one more way in which God made us in His image.
Aubrey de Grey leads the SENS project at Cambridge University and also runs the Methuselah Mouse prize for extending age in mice.