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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

Q. Some of his ideas for how to become immortal are terrifying, almost abhorrent.

A. He thinks we can destroy our cells’ ability to regenerate themselves, and put that ability in the hands of doctors. The process is called WILT, and even Aubrey acknowledges that it’s creepy. But I think he pushes the approach because it at least suggests one way that we can cure aging—that even cancer isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. It’s a hopeful idea. But in many ways it’s ugly, repellent and fantastical—and makes most gerontologists really mad.

Q. How would it work?

A. First, doctors would have to kill all of our stem cells, using chemotherapy. Then they’d replace them with genetically engineered stem cells that could not turn cancerous. They’d give you fresh stem cells—using bone marrow transplants and other procedures—every 10 years or so, for however long you live, potentially thousands of years. Without those additional procedures your body would wear out fast.

Q. It seems like nature has gone out of its way to make us finite.

A. The theory of aging has really supplanted that idea. We have exquisite examples of engineering design from head to toe—the way the eye sees, the hand picks up objects. But aging is not that way. The maintenance work goes beautifully when we’re 10, it still goes well when we’re 20, and then it gradually gets less efficient. It’s not that we were designed to fall apart, but evolution was looking the other way. Evolution was focusing on getting us to our early 20s, since very few people lived past that age. Now it’s up to us to decide how much we want to take care of ourselves.

Q. The National Institutes of Health spends as little as $10 million per year to research biological aging. That’s a far cry from what we’re spending on medical care for the elderly—Medicare’s annual budget, for example, is $430 billion and rising.

A. And it might even be less than $10 million. Everybody accepts the need to search for a cure for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But we still have trouble imagining it might make sense to look for a cure for aging. Yet you can make the case that slowing aging would provide a wonderful attack on all those diseases at once. After all, the single biggest risk factor for late-onset diseases is your later years.

Q. Then why is the study of aging such a tiny field?

A. This whole field should be better known. Here we are talking about the central problem of human existence—mortality. We now have drugs that seem to be pointing toward treatments for aging. And they’re not quackery anymore, they’re real. I think that changes everything.

Christie Findlay lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

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