As the health of older people improves and we live longer, geriatrics is becoming the science of the future.
As more and more people reach old age, it is very necessary to know how to look after the elderly people in our lives and to look towards the future, when we ourselves will fall within the elderly definition.
When we are young, we never think about issues such as the health of older people. But as the science of geriatrics advances, old age is becoming more comfortable and people are living longer than ever before. So what does the future hold for all of us as technology and science progress?
To find out more, read this transcript of a fascinating interview that I conducted with Dr. Aubrey de Grey on my radio show, Goldstein on Gelt. Scroll further down the page, and you can also enjoy a video of the interview.
Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist based in Cambridge. He is the chief science officer of a California-based foundation called the SENS Foundation, The Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. He is also a fellow of both The Gerontological Society of America and the American Aging Association.
Douglas Goldstein, financial planner & investment advisor, interviewed de Grey on Arutz Sheva Radio.
Aubrey de Grey: SENS is a strategy for combating aging with medicine that I developed more than a decade ago. It essentially consists of applying regenerative medicine to the problems of aging. It basically means repairing at the molecular or cellular level the various types of damage that accumulate throughout life as a result of normal metabolism or side-effects of normal functioning of the human body and eventually contribute to the emergence and progression of the diseases of old age. If we can repair that damage periodically, then we will do a much better job of postponing those diseases of old age and merely try to slow down the creation of the damage or side-effects of metabolism.
Douglas Goldstein: When you say to repair cell damage, what sort of damage would be seen?
Aubrey de Grey: Really, the big breakthrough that I made back in about 2000, when I first started talking about all of this, was to identify a useful classification of all of those types of damage that we need to fix.
Essentially, there are three types of damage that can be described at the level of cells. Number one is having too few cells as a result of the progressive process of cells dying and not being automatically replaced by the division of other cells. Number two is having too many cells as a result of cells not dying when they are supposed to. It turns out that there are some cases where cells are supposed to die and they forgot how. Number three is cells dividing when they are not supposed to, which is of course what cancer is.
In addition to those three, there are four types of damage at the molecular level, in other words inside cells or in the spaces between cells. There are two inside cells, and one of them is the accumulation of simple molecular garbage, a byproduct of metabolic processes that the cell for whatever reason doesn’t have the machinery either to break down or to excrete, so it thus sequestered that stuff and eventually it gets in the way. The other one is the accumulation of mutations in a very special part of the cell called the mitochondrion, which is the place in the cell where the chemistry of breeding happens, where oxygen is combined with nutrients to extract energy from it.
The final two are again at the molecular level, but outside the cell. One of them is equivalent to the first of the two inside the cell, namely the accumulation of molecular garbage, which I find useful to list separately from the garbage inside the cell simply because the way to get rid of it is different. Finally, there is stiffening of the network, the latex of proteins outside the cell that we called the extracellular matrix, the network of proteins that hold tissues together and have the shape that they have, but the matrix needs to be elastic for various reasons. This elasticity diminishes over time as a result of chemical reactions.
Douglas Goldstein: With those seven types of damage, presumably if you could repair either one or two or all of them, you would be able to extend the life of the cells and then extend the life of the body as well?
Aubrey de Grey: It turns out that repairing reasonably well or even completely just one or two of the seven types of damage would almost certainly have only a very modest effect in postponing age-related ill health, and that will extend life. We have to make a reasonably good attempt at repairing all seven of them in order to get a significant effect, like a few decades, for example, of additional postponement of ill-health.
Now you’re quite right to ask about the relationship between cellular ill-health and organismal ill-health. Different cell types have different problems and are maybe effectively rejuvenated by a small subsist of the repair mechanisms that we need to develop, but it’s only by repairing all of them, not necessarily perfectly, but reasonably well that we can expect to get a good effect.
Douglas Goldstein: How far away we’re talking until we can get to the Star Trek level medical care?
Aubrey de Grey: I guess it sounds like a bit like the Star Trek level, but really we are within range. It really should not be thought of anymore as science fiction, as this is very much science feasible. Some of these items of repair are actually very close indeed. They are already in clinical trials. In other words, all of the experiments in variety have been done and made to work and now humans are being tested. That’s true for example in the case of garbage outside the cell, and in the case of having too few cells, which of course is combated by stem cell therapy.
The other one is harder, and some are so hard that it may be six or eight years, possibly longer, before we even get them working in mice. Those are the ones that are limiting these steps, and I think we have probably got a 50-50 chance of getting all seven things working well enough to have a decisive impact in humans only about 25 years from now. And of course, it could be a lot longer than that if we hit problems that we haven’t foreseen. We’re talking a reasonably long way, but still on the scale of a human lifespan, which is not that far, which means that quite a lot of people who are alive today or even adults today may live long enough to benefit from these therapies when they arrive.
Douglas Goldstein: The most I think I’d ever put in a financial plan for life expectancy is 110, and normally it doesn’t go beyond a hundred, and frequently I will plan for someone to live somewhere between 80 and 100 depending on his history. Based on your research, should I be doing my financial planning for clients differently?
Aubrey de Grey: You probably should. I think that if anything, the financial services sector is the sector with the greatest responsibility of all to be doing exactly this forward planning, to be listening properly to people like me who are telling you what life is going to be like 25 years from now.
Here’s the really most important reason why you should be doing that. The real change of economic priorities or priorities within society as we know it is going to occur not when these therapies arrive, which is I say could be 25 years or might be way longer than that. When is going to happen is that when these therapies become widely anticipated, in other words, when there is a sea change among the general public and policy makers and opinion formers and so on with regard to whether it’s only a matter of time. At the moment, most people think that it’s just science fiction, but that will change and it will change very suddenly as a result of just a tipping point that’s reached in the lab with regard to experimental results and the way that our profile scientists, not just myself, but mentioning scientists talk about that results on camera. I think that we could very well see that sea change occurring within less than 10 years from now, and people like you had better to be ready.
Douglas Goldstein: When someone does live the longer life that you’re describing, would his whole life be stretched out, meaning that instead of retiring in 60 or 70, he would retire to 100 or 120, or would he retire at 65 and just need to collect social security for another 100 years?
Aubrey de Grey: In terms of health, absolutely, it’s not a case of the life being stretched out, it’s the case of someone being treated for the first time at the age of maybe 60 or older and being genuinely rejuvenated, being put into a state back that can genuinely be described as biologically maybe 30 or so.
The fact is it will be a rejuvenation process, not simply an arrest of the aging process, so that means that will be another 30 years before that person becomes biologically 60 again. In terms of what that means for the way the pensions work, the way the careers work and so on, of course one can only speculate really. I’m not an economist, but I think it’s quite likely at least initially that we will see a situation in which retirement becomes a periodic thing. People retire perhaps the same age I do now, but they don’t retire permanently. They rest for 10 or 20 years and then they go and have an authentication and retraining in their life and they become a rock star for the next 40 years.
However, of course even saying that, that’s quite a parochial or a short-sided sort of prediction because we’ve got to remember that when these therapies come along, it’s going to be 25 years from now or more, and a lot of other things would’ve changed too. We will have technologies in other areas of our life that we can’t really even predict and those technologies may very substantially alter the way which career structure is actually created.
Douglas Goldstein: This could create a true upheaval to the extent that I could understand where governments might not want you to be successful in your research, because although it’s very a exciting prospect to live a very long life, it could create such a change in society that we’d be unprepared to deal with the economic reality of it.
Aubrey de Grey: I think we have to remember that politicians ultimately want to get re-elected, and so when they are confronted with uncertainty in the long-term future, they try to minimize that uncertainty so they don’t end up making pronouncements that look stupid 10 years down the road or whatever. All that really says is that in matters of extreme importance to the general public, politicians tend to follow public opinion rather than leading public opinion, and that’s fine with me. As far as I’m concerned, if we can simply educate public opinion with regard to where the science is, where it’s going and how rapidly it’s going with regard to where it’s going to be in the relatively near future, then we would’ve done enough to ensure that public policy will follow that appropriate direction.
Douglas Goldstein: Could you just tell people how can they follow the work that you’re doing?
Aubrey de Grey: We have a website for our foundation www.sens.org, which is probably the right place to start. Also a few years ago, I wrote a book called Ending Aging, which goes into the science of all of this in great deal of detail, but again for general audience. You don’t have to have a PhD in Biology to understand it, though it is quite heavy going and you should read slowly. I think that anyone who reads that book and who reads what’s on my website should have a pretty good grounding in what we’re doing and why it’s so important.
Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for investment advice that takes into account each individual’s special position and needs. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns.