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The Author Speaks

A Cure for Aging?

Interview with Jonathan Weiner, author of Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality


One creature that comes close to being immortal is the uncomplicated pond- and puddle-dwelling hydra. — Laguna Design/Getty Images

Feel like there are never enough hours in the day? That you’re getting old faster than you’d prefer? Maybe, then, you’d like to tack a few extra years on your life. And as long as you’re at it, might as well go for broke. Why bother adding just five or 10 years when you could shoot for 100, 500 or even 1,000 extra years?

Immortality is where science fiction meets modern science meets the stuff of legend. And yet new research suggests that it might be possible—that is, in the next few decades—to “cure” aging, as if it were just any other disease. One group of prominent gerontologists is urging the world to take up an initiative the size of the space program to battle what they call the coming “global aging crisis.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Weiner wades into this nascent field with his latest book, Long for This World. He takes readers on a journey that spans centuries—from Adam and Eve to the most promising cutting-edge molecular biology. He introduces readers to Aubrey de Grey, a long-bearded eccentric who guzzles dark ale in a Cambridge pub while pushing the boundaries of aging research.

With Weiner's storyteller’s ability to explain complex chemistry using everyday metaphor, his book about the quest for immortality reads like The Da Vinci Code. But it has enormous implications for our nation’s science priorities—and offers a glimpse of mind-boggling possibilities.

He spoke with the AARP Bulletin.

Q. The quest for immortality is as old as man. Do you feel like you fully understand the biology of aging, or have you just scratched the surface?

A. I don’t think anybody on earth understands the biology of aging. I get it about as well as one can after years spent talking to the world’s leading experts, but they’re shaking their heads, too.

Q. Are there any creatures right now that come close to being immortal?

A. There are. One of them is the hydra—not the mythical one—which live in ponds and puddles. They last until the water dries up. They can regenerate each one of their cells using stem cells. They age so negligibly that it’s practical immortality.

Q. Why can’t we be more like that hydra?

A. We’re so much more complicated than the hydra. It doesn’t have consciousness or memory, the gifts we have from our big brains. Our brains and our memories can’t regenerate themselves perfectly forever, the way hydras can replace their stalk or tentacles ad infinitum.

Q. But we do regenerate constantly. In fact, you offer readers a powerful image—each of us is the phoenix.

A. At the molecular level, we are burning ourselves up and being reborn, almost every second of our lives. If only we could do that again and again, we would have the immortal life of the phoenix.

Q. It’s easy to assume that our days on earth are finite. But once you read about the current advances and realize immortality might actually be achievable, something quite magical shifts in your perspective.

A. We’re talking about two big questions: “Can we?” and “Should we?” And whether we should is at least as hard to deal with as whether we can.

Q. How so?

A. Because you’re changing everything. Would you even be the same person if you lived 1,000 years? Would you even be human? Most of our institutions would have to adjust. Would you want to promise your spouse “forever” if you thought you were going to live 1,000 years? It would certainly give more couples cold feet at the altar.

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