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News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

The quest for the “old age” antidote

For two days in the month of June my lake-side hometown in Northern Ontario becomes infested with millions of shadflies….

By Karen Moxley , in The Perfect Wrinkle: A commentary on society's fear of aging , on January 15, 2009

For two days in the month of June my lake-side hometown in Northern Ontario becomes infested with millions of shadflies. With a lifespan of only 30 minutes, this fly lives just long enough to be dazzled by the glow of a few street lights, perform its obligatory reproductive duties, and then find a nice sidewalk or driveway to die in. When the two-day shadfly invasion is over, we slowly emerge from the safety of our homes to find our quiet town once again transformed into a shadfly graveyard.

We quickly don our shovels and literally plow away the veiny-winged, bulgy-eyed, buggy deceased. I’m always astounded that these 1/2 hour beings (when assembled ‘en masse’) can wreak such havoc. But they certainly do.

The “Pando Tree” in Utah is believed to be the world’s oldest living organism with an estimated age of 80 000 years. It’s massive root system and branches span nearly 76 hectares, and the beastly tree weighs in at over 6000 tons. The Pando tree, a Quaking Aspen by species, appears to have anti-aging down to an art.

While the human lifespan is neither likened to the shadfly, nor the Pando tree, the average Canadian today will live to be 81.16 yeas old.

But what if we could defy the inevitability of aging? One UK scientist believes this might be possible.

Aubrey de Grey is a Cambridge-educated, biomedical gerontologist who provocatively claims that humans alive today could live into their thousands. Yes…children in their early teens could potentially see their 1000th birthday.

De Grey’s book, “Ending Aging,” suggests that emerging regenerative medical science will develop enough tissue-repair strategies within decades to enable human immortality. He’s even got a name for this grand-design: Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence.

Maybe this is good news. Perhaps we should cure aging. After all, it is killing thousands of people around the world every day.

But let’s step back for a moment.

Evolutionarily speaking, human beings are already living well beyond reproductive necessity. Unlike the shad-fly, we typically live long enough to reproduce, raise offspring, ensure the reproductive success of our children, and even enjoy the pablum-and-paddy-cake-days of our grandkids.

We live into our 70s, 80s, and 90s, and a rare few even surpass the century mark. But try as I might to envision my 500th birthday (and beyond), I cannot.

How would I look and feel after 500 years of gravity pulling on my skin and compressing my bones? Never mind the profound social transformations a 1000-year life would bear witness to. Part of life is about making a difference, and then making room for the next generation.

And this is to say nothing of the already overpopulated state of our planet. If we could stop the aging process, and thereby save the some 100 000 lives that are lost to aging every day, the Earth’s precious resources, fresh water and food supplies would be swiftly wiped out. Quality of life as we know it would be all but defunct, and we would surely facilitate our own demise.

I believe that somewhere between the 30-minute life of a shadfly and the 80 000-year eternity of the Pondo tree, human beings have been blessed with a comfortable longevity. We live long enough to feel, to live, to love, and to pass on our age-acquired wisdom. So who cares if aging is killing the masses? I think this is exactly what nature intended.


  • I love your blog idea Karen. You should do one on The Mysterious Case of Benjiman Button…

  • Good to see more people writing about this issue.

    A quibble though. That we die when we currently do is not what nature intended, as nature doesn’t intend at all. In logic they call this the fallacy from nature, and it’s a real dangerous one when it starts getting in the way of doing the right thing. Nature isn’t conscious. I am. And you are. And we are going to be tortured to death over a period that may span many years unless we stop that from happening. Aging makes people very, very sick. It doesn’t just kill them. It butchers their bodies and minds by incremental injury. It’s a moral imperative that we treat aging as humanities biggest health problem and do something about it right now.

    To whatever extent solving aging may be ‘unnatural’, it’s also ‘good’, which is much, much better. After all, a lot of things that make our lives better are unnatural. Without ‘unnatural’ we’d still be living in caves with a life span of twenty three.

    To comment on a few points:

    “How would I look and feel after 500 years of gravity pulling on my skin and compressing my bones?”

    Were we successful, you would look and feel as you did when you were twenty. That’s the whole point. Extending life by extending youth.

    “Part of life is about making a difference, and then making room for the next generation. ”

    Things change. In the future the difference we make is one we will get to share. I can’t think of a greater gift to give the next generations than the gift of long lasting youth and good health.

  • You’re right, the Earth could not sustain a massive population or reproducing immortals. However, 1000 years is a long time. I figure that in one persons lifetime we should be able to terraform Mars, develop the warp drive, send a team of engineers to Alpha Centauri (which is only 4.37 years away when traveling at the speed of light), and terraform a few more planets.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t want to live that long either.

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