June 03, 2004

A Life Extension Milestone

Anti-aging research is finally reaching an important threshold of mainstream credibility and respect. For years the field (if it could be called that) was left to nostrum peddlers. Now Fortune magazine has published an explanation of Dr. Aubrey de Grey's work (hat tip to Reason at FightAging.Org).

Also, Aubrey is taking over as editor-in-chief of Rejuvenation Research, formerly The Journal of Anti-Aging Medicine. Rejuvenation Research describes itself as:

an authoritative peer-review journal that publishes leading work on the implementation of rejuvenation therapies in the laboratory and eventually in the clinic, as well as basic research relevant to the further elucidation of what such therapies must do at the molecular and cellular level in order to be truly effective. Sociopolitical and ethical issues relating to substantial extension of healthy human life expectancy are also covered.

Another hat tip to FightAging.

So, congratulations to Aubrey, Reason, and all of us that would rather live long and healthy lives than deteriorate and die.

UPDATE: And don't miss Phil's interview with Aubrey!

UPDATE II: Randall Parker has much more.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 08:44 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

May 18, 2004

Yes SIR2!

Here's a quick recap: caloric restriction leads to longevity in virtually every animal species in which it's been tried. Why? There is continuing debate, but a lot of attention has been given to an enzyme, SIR2, that is increased with caloric restriction.

When Phil first reported on the enzyme SIR2, he was cautiously optimistic:

This is good news, but these are early results. First off, the findings apply only to yeast. (Although it can be surprising to learn how closely related we humans are to what we would normally consider much lower forms of life.) Secondly, we're a long way from finding a way to increase SIR2 levels without the rabbit-food regimen.

I love it when accelerating change takes even we Speculists by surprise:

Marmorstein and colleagues [researchers at the The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia] found that sirtuins [a family of enzymes that includes SIR2] influence longevity by flipping genetic switches. They appear to promote genomic stability, a process that goes awry in cancer and aging.

This is important. Just because something follows, it does not mean that it's the cause. We knew that SIR2 levels increased prior to measurable increases in longevity, but that did not mean that SIR2 was the reason. Now that we have a greater understanding of what SIR2 does, we may soon be able to evaluate SIR2's involvement in regulating lifespan.

But wait, there's more:

[Marmorstein and colleagues] used a yeast sirtuin as a model and captured 3D images of it to gain a structural picture of its enzymatic activity.

This led them to a binding site that when blocked activated the sirtuin.

Using virtual libraries of molecules, they are now identifying molecules with structures that might bind to this site and serve as SIR2 activators.

I am just overcome with geeky joy reading stuff like this. Think about the tools that were required to take these three steps. These tools were simply not available ten years ago. And what if Marmostein's group is correct about SIR2?

Okay, I'm back in control. "This is good news, but these are early results."

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 10:24 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 22, 2004

The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

Yesterday Reason from "FightAging.Org" pointed to the remarkable allegorical tale, "The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant," that is about to be published in The Journal of Medical Ethics.

There is no need for me to annotate this tale. The writer, Nick Bostrom, does a fine job of this himself after the tale.
It matters which stories we tell ourselves. Narrative templates structure our knowledge of the world and help us make sense of the situations we find ourselves in...

Traditionally, stories about aging have typically focused on the need for graceful accommodation. The recommended solution to diminishing vigor and impending death was resignation coupled with an effort to achieve closure in our personal relationships and in our practical affairs. Given that there was nothing that anybody could do to prevent or retard aging, this focus made sense. Rather than fretting about the inevitable, it was wiser to concentrate on wrapping things up and aim for peace of mind.

Today, our situation is different... Stories and ideologies that council passive acceptance of aging are now no longer harmless sources of consolation. They are reckless and dangerous impediments to urgently needed action.
This fable clarifies the issues and ethics of life extension. Don't miss this.

Here's my comments on these issues back in February.

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April 12, 2004

Kass Alone At The Crossroads

I caught bits and pieces of the Sage Crossroads webcast today. Since it will probably be a few days before this interview is posted in the Sage archive, I thought I'd share some highlights of what I heard.

Normally Sage Crossroads webcasts are set up as debates. Today was a simple interview, but it was an interview of Dr. Leon Kass, the chairman of the Presidents Council on Bioethics. When I "tuned in" Kass was arguing that life extension could retard full maturation of young people - a Seinfeld effect (yes, he brought up Seinfeld television show). Young people could become disinclined to take full responsibility for their lives - living in a semi-adolescence that goes on and on.

This might happen. So what? If the older generation is living and working longer, why not have a 40-year adolescence? In fact, this additional maturation time might aid society in a number of ways. If the preceding generation is still at the height of its capabilities and is not relinquishing control, wouldn't it be best for the younger generation to be living like Seinfeld? I'd prefer Seinfeld to revolutionaries.

Once this extended adolescence has ended, presumably these younger people will have greater experience and will be more mature than when the prior generation took charge at an earlier age.

The interviewer, Morton Kondracke, asked whether Kass is concerned about whether an indifinite lifespan could cause society to stagnate, to become "set in it's ways."

Kass mentioned some examples of older people being creative but added that people after age 50 rarely change their way of looking at the world. Stagnation, would, therefore, become a problem.

Not to be too cute, but Kass himself is a good example of this problem. It would seem that he would like to get back to the days when the barren died childless rather than have a test tube baby. And he would like to get back to those golden days (that never existed) when sex was had solely to procreate. To those days when ice cream was consumed in the privacy of one's own home.

I believe people get "set in their ways" because of the specter of death. As people get older they are both less likely to pursue further education (what's the point?) and they become further removed from the education they have obtained. As they begin to retire from society, they will often become nostalgic for old ideas.

These tendencies will be postponed by life extension, not eliminated and not prolonged. This argument against life extension is a variation on the "I don't want to live for twenty years decaying in an nursing home" idea. Obviously the goal of life extension is not to prolong decay, but to provide additional healthy years.

I think it’s illogical for Kass to argue on one hand that life extension will prolong adolescence and, on the other hand, that those over fifty will be just as "set in their ways" as in the past. Am I to believe that Jerry Seinfeld is moving strait from the Manhattan apartment with the hanging bicycle to a Florida retirment village and early-bird dinners? I don't buy it. Instead, I would expect a prolonged adolescence, followed by prolonged middle years and then a slow decline.

It was shortly after this that Kass got spooky. He said, in essence that there is no question that longer life would be fulfilling for many. But this may be a situation where society as a whole suffers more than individuals benefit.

In other words, because society might be inconvenienced if our lives are prolonged, we should all accept our fate and die with a little dignity for crying out loud! I find this point of view to be abhorrent – particularly in a public servant who is responsible for setting policy.

Our country is set up to protect the individual (who has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) from undue demands from society. Americans are not big on protecting society from change. If the U.S. is pulled from the life extension race, it will postpone the arrival of life extension, but it will come. And if it came under those circumstances, it might be controlled by elites. If THEY can decide we shouldn't have it, by the same logic why shouldn't THEY decide who can have it when it gets here?

Morton asked whether he, Kass, would eliminate life extension research if he could. Kass began by saying he couldn't eliminate this research even if he wanted to. This is no lie. He can't eliminate it. But he can retard its development and drive some of this research overseas. If life extension is possible, delay could kill millions.

Kass mentioned that he was against therapeutic cloning because it could lead to reproductive cloning. Yes, and driving could lead to drive-by shootings. Kass seems to actually be against our learning the techniques of therapeutic cloning – as if the knowledge itself could be dangerous.

Kass then descended into psycho-babble saying that we don't know what the elimination of sorrow will do to the human spirit. Does anyone think that a prolonged life will eliminate sorrow? If anything you will have more opportunity to experience sorrow. In fact, if you eliminate aging as a cause of death, a larger percentage of the population will die violently than before. You are, in effect, trading a peaceful death soon, for the chance of being offed by a jealous lover in a couple of centuries.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 01:51 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 06, 2004

Life Extension Soon

Last month I posted some speculations about the next ten years. Here's what I wrote about life extension:
[Before 2014] the first tentative steps are taken toward life extension. By 2014, life extension enthusiasts have reason to believe that "escape velocity" has been reached in this field – each year brings more than a year's improvement in life expectancy. Nevertheless, age reversal remains elusive.
Michael West's book, The Immortal Cell, gives me reason to hope for some form of life extension - something less than escape velocity - within the next ten years. Dr. West is a pioneer in the field of therapeutic cloning. His studies have shown that when the genetic material of an adult somatic cell is used in cloning, infant stem cell results. Our aging is reversed in the "time machine" of conception.

It's not difficult for Dr. West to imagine effective life extension therapies resulting from this and related technology:
…I am particularly intrigued about the possibilities of making young bone marrow stem cells. These cells normally reside inside our largest bones…and give rise to all of our blood cells. As we age, these cells progressively lose their telomeres and become dysfunctional. As a result, the elderly have greater difficulty mounting immune responses to the flu and other infections…

…young bone marrow stem cells made by therapeutic cloning would be indistinguishable from those that you and I had when we were born. And these cells are relatively easy to transfer back into the body of an older patient. They can be simply infused into the blood vessel in the arm, and they will migrate through the blood and eventually take up residence in the bone marrow to make young blood cells instead of the old ones. This single application of therapeutic cloning in geriatric medicine could improve the lives of millions. If so, it would be the first time in history that geriatric medicine applied scientific knowledge of the aging process in such a profound manner.
Dr. West also speculates that a similar process would allow us infuse the bones of elderly patients with endothelial precursor stem cells. These cells are involved in replacing the cell linings of blood vessels. Aging of these cells is thought to be a cause of coronary artery disease.
The impact of such an exciting new therapy [infusion of endothelial precursor stem cells] could extend beyond atherosclerosis to heart failure, geriatric skin ulcers, and many other manifestations of the aging process.
The Korean achievement occurred after Dr. West published The Immortal Cell. Otherwise he would no doubt have spent a chapter explaining the achievement and it's implications. To recap: A South Korean team of scientists announced in February 2004 that they have obtained a new embryonic stem cell line by cloning an adult woman.

All that remains to achieve Dr. West's vision is for the Korean team to coax these stem cells into becoming bone marrow stem cells and endothelial precursor stem cells that can be injected into the blood stream of the patient. This could mean newborn blood and newborn vessel lining for the female patient who donated the original somatic cell.

This will be far simpler than growing organs in a vat. And if this sort of treatment is made available to all, perhaps the need for replacement organs would be reduced anyway.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:31 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

March 25, 2004

'Till Never Do Us Part

So what is Leon Kass so afraid of? If he sees himself as a defender of the status quo, he has much to fear from life extension. If life extension becomes a reality it will change everything. Our entire civilization and all of our institutions and laws have been established with the presumption of a limited life span. Schools, work, retirement, and having children all have in the background this idea of a limited time passing. What exactly will happen to these institutions if the ultimate deadline were postponed indefinitely? Even if the best that could be accomplished is a 150-year average life span, how would society have to change?

Reason at "fightaging.org" discussed how life extension would affect retirement here and here.

How would marriage be affected? If life extension becomes a reality we may find out just how long two people can put up with one another.

I've known couples that were still very much in love after fifty years, and I've known others that seemed to be biding their time. Those biding their time may have had little happiness, but there also seemed little reason to divorce at that late point in life. These are the people that may have stayed together during their earlier years "for the kids." In the end they are staying together because other options have dwindled.

In most ways society benefits from network complexity. The more people in your network, the more powerful you become. "You should really get to know Sam, he's plugged in." Science, commerce, art...most every aspect of human life benefits from network complexity. And yet lifelong sexual monogamy in the form of state sanctioned marriage has always been encouraged. There are four reasons for this.

First, children reared in a two-parent home are less at risk. This may be politically incorrect to say, but it is objectively true. Girls that have a father in the home are less likely to experience teen-age pregnancy. Boys with a father in the home are less likely to become delinquent. Children of either sex tend to perform better in school and are less likely to abuse drugs if the father is around.

But the work of rearing children is over after a couple of decades. Even if a couple were to be married twenty years before having their last child (which would be unusual with today's life spans) their rearing responsibilities would be more or less complete by the fortieth year of the marriage. If both partners were age 60 at that point and were expecting 90 more years of vigorous life, I think its fair to ask how much society benefits from that marriage continuing.

This is an entirely different question than whether the individuals, the husband and wife, benefit from the marriage continuing. If two people are happy together I'm not suggesting that they should be encouraged to split. I am saying that society has always had a role in defining what marriage is. There might come a time when society feels the pressure to offer as "marriage" a contract with an expiration date. A less bizarre alternative would be an easing of restrictions for divorce after a certain point in the relationship – after the kids are grown, for example.

Since women started working outside the home, barriers to divorce have fallen. This is no coincidence. If both spouses are working, neither is likely to become a state charity case after a divorce. Each can make it on his and her own. Alimony can still be granted in cases of need or special merit, but it is granted less often today than 30 years ago.

As the barriers to divorce have fallen there has been a backlash of sorts. Some jurisdictions are offering "covenant marriage" - a sort of "super-marriage" that is harder to get out of. If people start living 150 years, perhaps there will also be pressure to modify this "covenant" so that it becomes a normal marriage after the children are grown.

The second benefit of faithful marriage is disease control. This is not a small matter when AIDS is decimating whole African nations. This will probably be less of an issue in the years to come. In a future where people can live to be 150, certainly something further could be done with disease.

Anyway, AIDS is not an epidemic because people take a new sex partner every thirty years. AIDS is a problem because some people have many partners during short intervals.

The third benefit of marriage is societal stability. With everything changing day after day (and with this rate of change increasing exponentially), there is value in having a place where "everybody knows your name" that's not a bar. One might argue that this stability benefits individuals but not society. I disagree. Society is made of individuals and if everybody is depressed and lonely, society will be a dysfunctional mess.

But like STDs, instability would not be as much of a problem if people stayed together thirty years. If instability is ever a problem it's because some people change partners very often.

The fourth benefit of marriage to society is the civilizing effect it has on its participants – particularly men. It’s the "All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down" effect. Unattached men tend to get in trouble and break stuff. All this can be great fun for the men doing it, but a serious drag on society. Men who get married tend to work, pay their bills, and contribute to society.

If a 60-year-old man had a 20-year-old body, would he be driven by hormones or controlled by wisdom? I guess we won't know for sure until it happens, but you may have the best of both worlds – the energy to have fun, and the wisdom to know when to call it a night.

But keeping a man out of trouble might be the best reason for a marriage to continue after the kids are grown. The man benefits, but what would a woman get out of a 100-year marriage? I guess that question will have to be answered case by case.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 10:38 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

March 12, 2004

Developing Biomarkers For Aging

A couple of days ago Reason at Fightaging.org wrote a post entitled "The Meaning of Anti-Aging." In the post Reason mentioned biomarkers:
We need biomarkers for aging: ways of measuring the progression of the aging process in our bodies. Even if we do find aging biomarkers, however, it isn't clear that they will allow accuracy to the point of being able to say "this treatment is giving you an extra two years of healthy life."
When biomarkers are first developed there will be difficulty making measurements as accurate as "you have two extra years." But, like everything else, biomarkers can be improved.

Until biomarkers (imperfect or not) are established, we will have no way of measuring the effectiveness anti-aging treatments. Apart, that is, from running 30-year studies. And there will be no mainstream acceptance of anti-aging treatments until their effectiveness can be measured.

If biomarkers were available the doctor and patient could see how well anti-aging therapy was working. I can imagine a patient being happy that his biomarkers showed an effective age of 45 when he is 65. The doctor could then say that yes, this was good for five years ago, but now we expect people your age to have an effective age no higher than 40.

The first step to establishing biological markers to aging is to establish scientific consensus on those factors that cause aging. The scientific community is not in full agreement on these factors at this time.

Aubrey de Grey has said:
There are really only seven types of, major types of damage that actually accumulate during time, and if we could fix them all we simply wouldn’t age.
For purposes of this post let's assume that Aubrey de Grey's seven factors are correct and complete. These are:
  1. Cell loss

  2. Mutations in our chromosomes

  3. Mitochondrial mutations

  4. Excess cells of unneeded types (senescent cells, fat cells)

  5. Extracellular cross linking (reaction between sugars in the blood stream and long lived proteins that causes, among other problems, hardening of the arteries)

  6. Extra cellular junk, garbage that needs to be brought into the cell to be broken down by the cellular lysosomes

  7. Junk within the cells that the lysosomes are not adapted to break down.
The second step to establishing biological markers is to invent effective tests for each of these seven factors. Measuring cell loss might require a noninvasive scan of the brain and the heart. By measuring the body fat percentage with calipers a doctor could determine the level of unneeded fat cells and the loss of lean muscle mass. Mutations of chromosomes and mitochondrial mutations could perhaps be measured with a blood test. Senescent cells, extracellular cross linking, and junk inside and outside the cells could also be measured with a blood test. A biopsy might be needed in certain cases.

Once these tests are available and are accepted medical practice, a doctor could run these tests on an individual and the results of these tests could then be assigned a score from 0 to 100 (100 being the best, 0 being the worst).

If, for example, a patient had no measurable chromosome mutation, he would score 100 in that category. Once the doctor had a score for each of the seven categories he or she could plug those values into a weighted average formula like this one:
B = (Lp + CMp + MMp + ECp + CLp + XJp + IJp) / 7

B = biomarker score

L = Cell loss

CM = chromosome mutations

MM = mitochondrial mutations

EC = excess cells

CL = extracellular cross linking

XJ = extracellular junk

IJ = intracellular junk

p = the percentage of importance each of the seven factors play in aging.
In order to know the relative importance of each of these seven factors, the tests of the seven factors will have to be run on many individuals of every age. Doctors would probably want test subjects that are in reasonably good health for their age. Once they have average values for each of these tests for all age groups they will have a better understanding how each factor affects aging and how important each factor is in the overall picture of aging (the little p's in the formula). This will be the third and final step toward establishing the first biomarkers for aging.

The biomarker formula will return a score from 0 to 100. This score could be converted into an "effective age" to aid the patient's understanding.

UPDATE: Biomarkers are debated here.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 09:26 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 02, 2004

It Couldn't Happen Here

Another Korean Breakthrough.

Posted by Phil at 06:45 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 24, 2004

The 100-Year Secret

Reader Perry pointed me to this NY Times article about Dr. Nir Barzilai, the Director of the Institute for Aging Research at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Barzilai is taking a close look at some 300 Ashkenazi Jews who have made it to an avergae age of 100. Barzilai wants to know what their secret is.

I wondered why people born at the beginning of the last century who are still alive are relatively healthy. I wondered what they had in their genes that was special. When they were born, the average life expectancy was 40. What made it possible for them to live more than twice the average? These days, so many scientists look for the genes for specific diseases. I wanted to go the opposite way, look for genes that helped people live healthier and longer lives.

Barzilai explains why it's important to use a homogenous population when doing such a study — it makes the effective genes easier to isolate. He also gives the lie to the story of the long-lived Georgians who achieve the century mark by eating yogurt:

We think that claim may be inaccurate. There may be a history of people there exaggerating their longevity because Stalin, who was Georgian, wanted it known that Georgians were long-lived. Under Communism, people were exaggerating their age, bringing in their grandparents' identity cards when dealing with officials.

Shoulda known!

It's a fascinating interview. Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 06:32 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 20, 2004

A Disagreement Among Friends

Reason from the Longevity Meme and I have a back and forth exchange (starting in the comments to this post) over his assertion that:
"… the cost of delay in regenerative medicine is pretty much 55 million lives a year…

Nothing the Bush administration is doing is causing as much damage as their medical policies. These policies have already doomed many more people than Stalin and Hitler put together."
Reason is doing important work raising awareness of life extension over at the Longevity Meme. And if you don't regularly read his Fight Aging blog, you should. But I felt the need to respond to his comment:
Comparing purposeful genocide under Stalin and Hitler with potential deaths many years from now seems just a tad heavy-handed.
Heavy handed is all relative: it comes back to the point of whether preventing research is morally equivalent to preventing a sick man from buying an available cure.
Reason further elaborated in a blog post entitled, "The True Cost of Delay."
There's a tendency for people to throw large numbers of casualties out of the window as impossible to talk about. 250 million deaths cannot be discussed, they say. This is a terrible part of human nature, because those consequences are very real - you can't just magic them out of existence them because they are hard to talk about or discuss. Heavy handed or not, I am deliberately setting forth the position that Leon Kass, the Bioethics Council, President Bush and his administration, in their deliberate, successful attempts to block progress towards regenerative medicine, will have as their legacy more death and suffering than was caused by all the wars and dictators of the 20th century.
When I suggested that Reason was being "heavy-handed" with his Bush/Stalin/Hitler lives-lost comparison, I was not suggesting that he was factually incorrect.

Like Reason I'm beginning to believe that life extension will happen. It's just a matter of solving some complicated problems. Since I believe that it will happen I must admit that anything that actually delays necessary research will cost lives. Here's Reason's math on how many lives.

From the point of view of those dying (which could be most of us alive today), it matters little if the policies that bring about death are motivated by good or evil. I look at Bush and naturally like the guy. Others see him and seethe. But its really irrelevant to this debate how others see the current administration or the purity of administration motives.

So my question is: what can be accomplished by the Bush/Stalin/Hitler lives-lost comparison?

Whenever Hitler or the Nazis were brought up in Usenet discussions, it triggered Godwin's Law:
This states that if one participant in a discussion calls another a Nazi or compares them to Hitler, the thread has degenerated into personal abuse and there is no possibility of further rational discussion, the thread is therefore dead and no one should post any more messages in it. If anyone ignores this and does continue posting, they should not be replied to.
Useful debate ends when you compare your opponent to Nazis. The discussion becomes a flame war. This can be worse than not speaking at all.

Beyond the problem of ending civil discourse, I don't think that Bush's policies have thwarted science all that much. Life extension is bigger than a single government (as South Korea showed us). Embryo stem cell research is only one small part of the picture. Life extension will arrive bit by bit. Scientists who aren't even thinking about life extension will help solve the problem. If embryo stem cell research really is needed, it will be performed overseas or by private funding here in the U.S.

Luddites may still have an important role to play as our society navigates the singularity. Ultimately these people are on the wrong side of history. But if they have any success slowing progress, this may allow time for the rest of us to debate how these changes should be implemented.

During these debates it will be counter-productive to compare our opponents to Nazis.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 03:57 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Generalismo Francisco Franco Still Dead

And death continues to suck. A newly expanded version of the Speculist's all-time most-read entry (not counting the interviews) is running over on The Longevity Meme.

Posted by Phil at 08:36 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 19, 2004

Brain Cells

Turns out that our brains have stem cells in them that can be used to grow new brain our nerve cells. FuturePundit has the scoop:

This particular discovery is also part of a larger pattern of discovery in which new sources of adult stem cells are being found in different parts of the body. It seems likely that many more sources of adult stem cells are still waiting to be discovered.

Very cool. And check out the interesting exchange (in the comments section) between Randall Parker and our good friend Reason.

Posted by Phil at 04:44 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 17, 2004

Would Reclassifying Aging As A Disease Help?

This is my second post on the January 22, 2004 International Logevity Center debate, "Is Aging a Disease?"

Dr. Moody started out by making an important distinction between aging and senescence. Aging is simply a marking of time. Senescence is the deterioration that happens to all of us over time (and sometimes at different rates). There was little debate that the process of senescence is an unpleasant and undesirable biological process. And neither of the participants spoke as though it would be a bad thing if senescence were cured. The debate really centered on whether classifying senescence as a disease would be good policy.

Dr. Moody argued that reclassifying senescence as a disease would encourage money to be spent to cure it.
The only way Americans spend money on anything is if it is a disease. That’s the NIH legacy. That’s the politics of American health care. You show up at Congress and say, “Well, aging is kind of a natural thing, but it would be fun to know more about it. And that would be kind of a helpful thing for science.” They are not going to give you anything!
Obstetrics was offered as a counter-example. Neither pregnancy nor child-birth is considered a disease, but they are medicalized – you are treated by doctors for pregnancy and child birth. You could be treated for senescence without classifying it as a disease.

The participates also debated how this redefinition would affect those currently selling anti-aging treatments – much of which they agreed is pseudo-scientific junk.
MOODY: It would help them, because they would say, “We’ve been saying it’s a disease all along. Now Congress and the FDA have agreed with us. “Thank God they’re finally enlightened,” to use Arthur’s phrase.

CAPLAN: It would put them out of business, because they’d finally have people chase them down saying, “You’ve been on the side peddling all this stuff in the name of some mumbo jumbo. Now, prove what you are doing before you can go out there and make a claim to get after this. You show us the safety. You show us the efficacy. And real physicians, real scientists are now on the case, basically saying, “What’s the evidence? Are you in the journals? Where’s your peer review?”
I'm inclined to agree with Dr. Caplan on this. I'm not as happy about it as he is though. There is much money wasted on snake oil, but sometimes things just have to be tried. Both Dr. Moody and Dr. Caplan believe that it would be much better to have lengthy clinical trials on every anti-aging therapy before they are tried with people. Both of these men are professional scientists and it's not surprising that this is their bias.

Some current treatments seem to provide some benefit with very little risk. If reclassifying aging as a disease means that manufacturers will no longer be able to mention anti-aging when selling something like anti-oxidants, it may affect their sales. This may, in turn, affect availability. I'm not sure this is 100% a good thing.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 10:30 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 16, 2004

Why Do We Live So Long?

The January 22, 2004 "Is Aging a Disease?" debate (the webcast and transcript are here) covered so much ground that I could write a dozen posts discussing points made by both sides. I doubt I'll get around to that (the next Sage Crossroads debate is this Thursday at 10:00 a.m.). But I thought I'd discuss a point raised by Dr. Moody regarding why we live as long as we do.

Some people have said that aging and death are nature's way of clearing the way for the next generation. Dr. Moody argued that this view is not scientific. It appears that evolution within our environmental niche has much to do with our life span, but through omission - not commission. Evolution is simply "unconcerned" with what happens to us after a certain age.

The wonder is that we don't die sooner. If we lived only to age 45 we'd still have plenty of time to reproduce and nurture our offspring. Generally an animal's body size is a good predictor of life span. The bigger the animal, the longer the life. Humans, however, live a life far longer than our body size would suggest. Few animals of any size live longer.

Dr. Moody mentioned one explanation for why we live longer: "The Grandmother" hypothesis. This hypothesis states that there was evolutionary pressure to design us to live beyond 45 so that we could help nurture the second generation into its reproductive years.

I think there is something to this hypothesis. Human children are uniquely defenseless in the wild. If Dad is miles away hunting and Mom is out of earshot gathering, Mammaw and Pappaw are quite valuable. Aunts and Uncles are better employed having kids of their own. And by having babysitters Junior has a better chance of surviving to pass on genes that, incidentally, favor longevity.

Additionally, the human mind is much more complex than that of any other animal. It takes many years for the mind to mature. It is physically possible for humans to have children years before they are emotionally and mentally mature. This creates further pressure for grandparents to be around to help with the second generation.

Whatever evolutionary pressure there may have been favoring grandparents, that pressure is less for great grandparents. Dr. Moody's point was that senescence is the product of evolutionary neglect (a lack of pressure to live longer), not part of some grand design to clear the way for future generations. Generally a child is not placed at risk by a great-grandparent's death, but there is no benefit conferred to the child by the death either.

If the only reason that we don't live longer is nature's neglect, there is no particular reason why we shouldn't, if we choose, solve the problem ourselves.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 01:56 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

February 12, 2004

My Little Bud Grows Up

The Longevity Meme reports on a remarkable achievement by researchers in Korea:

The Next Step in Therapeutic Cloning (Thursday February 12 2004)
As reported by Wired (and in numerous other places), Korean researchers have accomplished the next successful step in therapeutic cloning and stem cell medicine: reliably extracting stem cells from cloned human embryos. As the Wired article says, "a Korean woman now has a set of cells that could one day replace any damaged or diseased cell in her body with little worry of rejection, if researchers can get stem cells to work therapeutically." The scientists have even managed to create a new stem cell line from this work, which is very good news, given the limited number of lines currently available. A New York Times article provides a good introduction to the medical significance of this advance.

Leon Kass, the Luddite General of the United States, was quick to comment:

'The age of human cloning has apparently arrived: today, cloned blastocysts for research, tomorrow cloned blastocysts for babymaking,' he wrote in an e-mail message. 'In my opinion, and that of the majority of the Council, the only way to prevent this from happening here is for Congress to enact a comprehensive ban or moratorium on all human cloning.'

You know, I'm not really for or against reproductive cloning. There are rational arguments as to why it's an okay idea, and rational arguments as to why it would cause problems. But this superstituous dread with which Kass approaches the subject is truly astounding to me. He is apparently not upset that a blastocyst was killed (not in this quote, anyway). If that were what bothered him, at least his position would be consistent with the Catholics:

Richard M. Doerflinger, deputy director for pro-life activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, 'This is a move toward creating new human lives solely to destroy them in research.' He termed cloning 'the ultimate way of treating life as an object, as an instrument to an end.'

I can see the logic of that, even if I don't agree with it. The Catholics define humanity all the way down to the freshly fertilized zygote. A blastocyst is therefore "human" and it's wrong to use a "human" for research, not to mention killing it. Agree with it or disagree with it, at least that's a coherent position.

Contrast it with Kass' position. His great fear is that someday somebody is going to create one of these blastocysts and not kill it. And yet I bet he would describe himself as being "pro-life."

Go figure.

The general public is desperately misinformed on a lot of topics, but I think there are two that we really need to help straighten them out on:

  1. Cloning

    It isn't magic. It isn't playing God. It isn't new.

    Nature creates human clones all the time in the form of identical twins. Reproductive cloning would be nothing more than producing a late-arriving identical twin. Not the same person. The camera doesn't steal your soul, and neither will a clone. As I said, there are social reasons why this might not be a good idea, but can we please for the love of God get the idea that there is something uncanny or "spooky" about cloning out of our heads? There isn't.

  2. The Human Developmental Cycle

    Look, phylogeny may not recapitulate ontogeny, but people who believe that it does are at least on the right track. If you believe that, while forming in Mommy's tummy, you were first a tadpole and then a salamander and then a shrew and then a monkey and then, finally, Mommy's Little Angel, you're wrong. But you are right to believe that at some point you became a human being, and that prior to that point, "you" were not.

    Even the Catholics believe this. As has been pointed out in the abortion debate, Catholics must believe that the egg, prior to fertilization, is not human, or else fertile women would have to attend a funeral every month. Human beings grow out of something that may be living human tissue, but that is not in and of itself a human being. That being the case, it's just a question of where you draw the line.

The Catholics draw the line at fertilization, and that isn't just arbitrary. At fertilization, you initiate a process that will (or at least could) result in a human being. But that doesn't mean it's the only place where the line can be drawn, or even the best place. Life Extension advocate Reason draws the line thusly:

On that note, it has to be said that I object to authors describing a small clump of cells as a "human clone." In my book, a human is someone you can converse with, who can think, feel pain, and suffer the effects of Alzheimer's or heart disease. An embryo has none of those characteristics. It is a pathology in modern society that there are so many people who are willing to kill or condemn millions to suffer and die rather than allow the use of small pieces of artificially created tissue to cure disease and save lives.

I agree with Reason that a mass of undifferentiated stem cells is not a human being. It doesn't have a head or a heart or a nervous system. Those things start to kick in around week five, and take recognizable shape somewhere around week eight. According to the NY Times article, the stem cells were harvested from a four-week-old blastocyst.

If we, as a society, can define humanity as starting somewhere after the fourth week of embryonic development, we open up the possibility of tremendous medical advances. This needn't be a new front in the abortion war. Most people, even conservatives, even staunch abortion opponents, take something other than the official Catholic position anyway. Or else why would there be an attempt to put a specific ban on partial-birth abortions? Most people recognize that killing a near-to-full-term baby is different from terminating a pregnancy at three or four weeks. Otherwise, the move to ban partial-birth abortions makes no logical sense.

A few years from now, it may be possible to create an embryonic clone of myself. (Biology dictates that women are easier to clone than men, so it will be a while before I can do it.) Let's consider that embryo at four weeks. If I put it in the right environment, that blastocyst might grow into my identical twin brother. It isn't my twin brother now. It's just some growing tissue taken from my body and an egg I borrowed from somebody else. It would be an amazing little bud of life, similar to (genetically identical to) the amazing little bud of life that eventually grew into me. But we have a different developmental path for this bud. Rather than growing it into a separate human being, we're going to grow it back into me.

We aren't going to kill it; the whole idea is to produce a viable collection of ongoing cells. We will remove that part of it that makes it want to grow into a different person (satisfying Leon Kass to a certain extent, by the way) and otherwise, we will allow it to go on living indefinitely. If I am injured or get sick, part of this collection of cells will be reintroduced into the organism from which it came — that would be me — to help it recover. As I age, more of the cells might be introduced to help counteract the effects; still others might be put on a new developmental path towards being a finished "part": a heart or a set of lungs or a new pair of eyes.

Each time one of these procedures was done, this living human tissue would grow into a human being. Why would anyone insist that it has to grow into a different human being? Says who? My twin brother can't demand that he has a right to exist. I never have to create a clone in the first place. And if I do create one, I assert that I have the right (before it grows into a separate and distinct human being) to decide that it will be me, rather than him, when it grows up.

Posted by Phil at 09:43 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 08, 2004

Do You Feel Lucky?

I'm traveling at full highway speed toward a red light. Some have are already stopped ahead of me at the light. Others in front of me are slowing drastically. But I'm still about a quarter of a mile out. I haven't started slowing down yet, but I see that I'll need to start slowing soon. And the fact that I'll have to stop is hardly questioned.

But now I see that the cross traffic is beginning to stop for their signal light. My light is still red, but now I have reason to hope. There is no guarantee that the light will turn green before I have to stop, but I feel confident that the people driving behind me will not have to stop. I realize that if I get too close to the intersection I will have to stop even if the light turns green before I get there. So I let off the accelerator to slow my approach to the intersection.

This is where we are today with radical life extension.

I watched Aubrey de Grey's debate with Dr. Sprott for the first time today.

The problems that Dr. de Grey proposes to solve (to end and reverse aging by way of radical life extension) are the most complex and difficult that humans have ever attempted. He doesn't deny this. But I was struck by the confidence he has that these problems will be solved by 2030.

He framed the debate nicely. He described the seven problems that he feels need to be solved and described generally how these problems can be solved and what is being done to solve the problems even today. He challenged his opponent to give a concrete reason why any of these seven problems are in the short run unsolvable. Or, in the alternative, he challenged his opponent to offer another problem (other than the seven) that must be solved.

Dr. Dick Sprott didn't take him up on this challenge. Dr. Sprott argued semantics - senescence is not a disease. Honestly, who cares? Whatever you call it, it's undesirable.

Dr. Sprott tried to show inconsistency in Dr. de Grey's position by bringing up a paper that de Grey had signed off on. De Grey was able to quickly explain that he signed off because he was in agreement as to the characterization of our current ability to extend life (which is nil), not because he agreed that these problems are insoluble for all time.

Surely Dr. Sprott's position - that we won't overcome aging in the next few years - could have been better argued.

I do agree with Dr. Sprott that there is some danger in discussing radical life extension - snake oil salesmen and a disillusioned public when science doesn't deliver. Snake oil has always been with us. Many will use the statements of people like de Grey to give credibility to their quackery. Before radical life extension becomes a reality many, and probably myself included, will buy some snake oil. But I say that as long as the snake oil is not harmful, a placebo is not a terrible thing.

A little snake oil waste is a small price to pay for the mobilization of the scientific community. This appears to be Dr. de Grey's motive for coming forward with these startling predictions at this time - to mobilize the scientific community (and perhaps all of western civ).

Dr. Sprott seemed to believe that his position is the mature, adult position. That acceptance of the inevitability of death is ennobling. Certainly this fatalism has been a useful adaptation for the generations that have gone before. The first line of the "Serenity Prayer" is:
"God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I Cannot change…"
Live and love what life you have. Don't give thought or worry to things that are beyond your control. This has been useful wisdom because it put the focus back on doing things that could be productive. But here's the next line of the "Serenity Prayer."
"Courage to change the things I can."
Clearly Dr. de Grey is a courageous man. He is risking his reputation to bring about change. The big question is whether this is something that can be changed or is this folly? The last line of the prayer is:
"And Wisdom to know the difference…"
Which brings us to Pascal's Wager. Pascal (the famous mathematician who had a computer language named after him) argued that to believe in God is a good bet because if God exists, you'll go to heaven and avoid hell. If you don't believe in God [and there is a God], you might lose all this. If God does not exist, you'll have nothing to lose. So it's a smarter bet to believe in God than not to.

Aubrey de Grey is making a wager. If he's right then he will be recognized as one of history's greatest visionaries. By mobilizing science he will be credited for saving countless lives. Even if it takes 100 years to accomplish radical life extension (rather than de Grey's predicted 26 years), he will probably be thought of as "a man ahead of his time."

If, on the other hand, de Grey is completely wrong and radical life extension proves to be impossible for all time, then what has been lost? Mobilizing science even to chase an illusory goal will lead to progress. Other discoveries will be made. Life will be improved and life expectancy (within current limits) will be increased. He will thought of as the Percival Lovell of genetics - a man with eccentric and silly notions who nevertheless made great contributions to science.

Dr. de Grey has made a good bet. Can I get in on that action?

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 01:51 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 06, 2004

Hanging Around

Last October I read Ray Kurzweil's "Essay for E-School News."
"Human life expectancy is another one of those exponential trends. Every year during the 18th and 19th centuries, we added a few days to the human life expectancy. Now, we are at the intersection of biology and information science. Today, we are adding about 120 days every year to the human life expectancy. With the full flowering of the biotechnology revolution, within 10 years, we will be adding more than a year to the human life expectancy every year. So if we can hang in there for another 10 years, we may actually get to experience the full measure of the profound century ahead."
Many people think this is nonsense - that most of the strides we've made in increasing life expectancy has been by decreasing infant mortality. If in the past you survived infancy you had a shot of living to be as old as we can live today. Ben Franklin lived into his 80's.

But being an optimist, this article inspired me to develop an Excel spreadsheet that predicts life expectancy and the years a person has left as time goes by. What makes this exercise different from normal actuarial chart is that this spreadsheet shows the difference between chronological age and apparent (or biological) age. When life extension technology becomes a reality, the difference between our chronological age and our biological age will increase over time. This spreadsheet also predicts a person's present chance of living to see a particular year.

This project is extremely speculative - perhaps to the point of fantasy. But my hope is that it will serve a purpose like Drake's formula (the formula for calculating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations) to provide a framework for our speculation. And what's the name of this blog again?

Click here for the spreadsheet and here for the instructions.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 09:50 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 27, 2004

Aubrey de Grey Update

FuturePundit reports on a new interview (currently running on Better Humans) with Cambridge University genetecist and life extension visionary Aubrey de Grey. Aubrey offers some reasons why progress in this area isn't happening as fast as some of us would like, but he also adds this hopeful note:

I think there will be only a short interval between the time when we first have genuine life extension treatments and the time when we're improving those treatments faster than we're aging[.]

Randall Parker comments:

There are enough multimillionaire and billionaire philanthropists that all the work could be done with private money if only enough wealthy people became interested. If you know any wealthy people then do us all a favor and send them Aubrey's interview and some of the articles from his web site.

I don't actually know any welathy people, but I'm starting to think that (if I did) it might make more sense to try to persuade them to fund Aubrey's work than it would this project (worthy though it is.)

By the way, speaking of Aubrey, he was the subject of our first-ever Speaking of the Future interview.

Posted by Phil at 07:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 22, 2004

Fighting the Real Enemy

A common theme in the comments posted to my recent essay on why I think death is such a bad thing was the idea that lengthening life doesn't work as an end unto itself. Life extension is meaningless without some assurances as to the quality of life. As reader Cybrludite put it, "It's not the years in your life, but the life in your years."

Three major problems that were raised with extending human lifespan were dementia, incontinence, and (for longer periods of life extension) boredom. I don't have much to say about incontinence at present — not really one of my favorite topics — and I think the debate about boredom has been sufficiently argued in the comments to the original post. (For another take on what to do with a long life, see the Aubrey de Grey quote in the sidebar of the Speculist home page.)

But there have been some developments on the dementia front. FuturePundit Randall Parker reports as follows:

Vitamin C, E In High Dose Combination May Protect Against Alzheimer's

Peter P. Zandi, Ph.D., of The Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, and colleagues examined the relationship between antioxidant supplement use and risk of AD.

Peter P. Zandi, Ph.D., of The Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, and colleagues examined the relationship between antioxidant supplement use and risk of AD.

The researchers found the greatest reduction in both prevalence and incidence of AD in participants who used individual vitamin E and C supplements in combination, with or without an additional multivitamin. "Use of vitamin E and C (ascorbic acid) supplements in combination reduced AD prevalence [by about 78 percent] and incidence [by about 64 percent]," the authors write.

How about that. So big doses of Vitamin C and E (together, they don't do you much good separately) can apparently make a significant difference in whether one contracts Alzheimer's. I've been taking them for years (among several other things). Now I need to remember to call my Mom and make sure she and Dad are taking them every day; my in-laws, too.

Randall also notes that how you take the supplements may play a role in how well they work:

If you want to take Vitamin E to reduce your risk of Alzheimer's Disease then be aware that it is best to take E with oil and perhaps a food grain for maximum absorption. Vitamin E with pasta and a pasta sauce with oil would probably be a great way to maximize absorption.

Waiter, I'll have the Linguini with antioxidants, please.

Need I say it? Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 07:48 AM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

January 16, 2004

Death Sucks

Reader Mary (Definitely on the Outer Ring) posed the following question in a recent comment:

Why are you so scared of dying?

(She wrote some other provocative questions as well, but I want to focus on this one for now.)

From the context, I'm going to assume that what Mary is asking is a philosophical question. She doesn't want to know why I would get out of the way of a speeding truck. All mentally healthy human beings are "scared of dying" in that sense; it's something we share with virtually every living being on the planet.

What Mary wants to know is this: why am I not resigned to my own mortality? Why would I want to engage in this unseemly practice of exploring alternatives to dying?

I'll tell you why, Mare.

Death sucks.

Some say that dying is as natural as being born. I say, so what? Vomiting is as natural as eating, but I happen to like eating a lot more.

Some say that death is a part of life. I contend that, by definition, it is not.

Some say that death is the threshold to the next stage of existence. I say maybe so. But this stage seems to have a natural built-in aversion to the threshold to that stage, and I'm going to go with that.

Many believe that the fear of death is a primitive relic, a lingering superstition. Fear of death, they will tell us, is what originally led humanity to irrational thinking. We invented gods and spirits primarily to assuage this fear. Now we live in an age when rational thinking might once again hold sway, although irrationalism persists all around. To differentiate themselves from the irrational throng, rational thinkers proudly state that they are not afraid of dying.

I remember years ago, when I went to see Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ, there were two groups of sign-carrying protestors standing out front of the theatre. One group was Christian, the other was Atheist. The box office line was rather long, and those of us standing in it were stuck between these two groups: one warning us not to go see this shocking piece of blasphemy, the other encouraging our support of free speech. Needless to say, there was a good deal of verbal sparring between the two camps. Some comments were good natured and even a little funny, but it got heated from time to time. I remember one exchange ended with these very words:

Yeah? Well, I'm not afraid of dying.

Hey, good one. Sign-carrying atheists, one; sign-carrying fundamentalists, zero.

Unfortunately, that's a load of crap. No, I don't mean that I doubt that guy's sincerity when he said that he was not afraid to die. I'm sure he meant it, and wasn't just trying to score points against those polyester-clad, big-haired fundamentalists in front of his cool sign-carrying atheist friends. But the notion that the fear of dying is uniquely linked with irrational thinking is just about as wrong as it can be.

Let's go back 50,000 years or so ago and take a look at our primitive ancestors. It's true that somewhere along the line they developed burial rituals and a belief in an afterlife. Maybe this was just an irrational response to their fear of death and the grief of losing a loved one. But it was just a small part of what they were doing. What, then, were they spending most of their time doing?

Figuring out how the world worked.

These plants will make you sick. These are good for food. Spears with sharp stone heads are better than pointed sticks at bringing down game and warding off predators. This is a good place to stay; predators don't usually come here. After the moon changes three more times, we'll start heading south. We used to wait until it got cold, but this way works better and we lose fewer members of the tribe.

Our ancestors relentlessly pursued an empirical investigation into the nature of...everything. Science didn't begin with Newton or Bacon or the ancient Greeks. It started way back when. All mathematics, physics, biology, astronomy — all rational human thought — has as its foundation the pioneering work of these our ancestors.

Now what do you suppose motivated them to do all this hard investigative work, to engage in all this rational thinking. Could it have been the fear of death?

Absolutely. They were besieged by threats on all sides. A rational, empirical approach to the world emerged as the soundest way of warding off those threats. If our fundamentalist-taunting friend could go back in time and somehow convey to a group of his ancestors his basic credo of intellectual superiority — "I'm not afraid of dying" — they'd think he was nuts. And not because they were so irrational.

But we're only halfway there.

Paradoxically, the self-satisfied volley of "I'm not afraid of dying" might just as easily have come from the religious side of the ticket line as it did from the non-believing side. Religious and spiritually oriented people are often quick to tell you that they have no fear of death. And if you really got it, — whatever that means to the particular believer — you wouldn't be afraid of death, either. If you only understood about Jesus' victory on the cross, or reincarnation, or nirvana, or even just the Natural Order of Things, you would be as resigned to your own eventual demise as the rest of us.

Yeah, well, that's a load of crap, too.

I'm going to restate that so I'm not misunderstood. Any religion that teaches that you should be okay with the fact that you're going to die is a load of crap. Christianity (to use the religion I'm most familiar with) most assuredly does not teach this. As C. S. Lewis famously put it:

But here is something quite different. Here is something telling me -- well, what? Telling me that I must never, like the Stoics, say that death does not matter. Nothing is less Christian than that. Death which made Life Himself shed tears at the grave of Lazarus, and shed tears of blood in Gethsemane. This is an appalling horror; a stinking indignity. (You remember Thomas Browne's splendid remark: "I am not so much afraid of death, as ashamed of it.)

I believe that all human beings, including people of faith, share the same natural revulsion for death. We can blot these feelings out and cover them up, but to do so is to become like those rabbits in Watership Down who sang melancholy songs while trading their lives for some lettuce and carrots.

Those who claim to have no fear of death, whether they be an Objectivist or the Dalai Lama or some Palestinian strapping dynamite to his chest, have lost touch with a primary truth of human existence: a truth which has lead us both to science and to faith. Those who seek to prolong human life — whether via antioxidants or cryonics or standard medical procedures — have tapped into that same fundamental truth:

Death sucks.

Posted by Phil at 09:32 AM | Comments (80) | TrackBack

January 03, 2004

More on Calorie Restriction

I guess I kind of opened up a can of worms with my crack about "400 calories a day" yesterday. I was looking through some notes and I found this golden oldie over on my previous blog, thought it might shed some light (or at least annoy a few more people.)


This is my top story on both blogs this morning. Check it out:

A new mouse study suggests fasting every other day can help fend off diabetes and protect brain neurons as well as or better than either vigorous exercise or caloric restriction. The findings also suggest that reduced meal frequency can produce these beneficial effects even if the animals gorged when they did eat, according the investigators at the National Institute on Aging (NIA)

There's more.

Dr. Mattson and his colleagues are currently studying the effects of meal-skipping on the cardiovascular system in laboratory rats. The findings of this study, which compares the resting blood pressures and heart rates of rats that were fasted every other day for six months with rats allowed to eat unlimited amounts of food daily, should be available soon.

Now, we've known for a long time that caloric restriction is an effective means of extending lifespan, at least in rodents. It very likely works with humans, too. The trouble with these calorie restriction diets is that they're a huge drag. I read Beyond the 120 Year Diet, which is an expanded version of the diet book by Roy Walford based on his life-extension research with rodents. My normal pattern is to buy a diet book, read it, try the diet out for anywhere from 10 days to three weeks, get bored, and quit. But with the 120 Year Diet, I didn't even get that far. All I had to do was read it.

Essentially, you just eat one big salad every day.

Let's be real, here.

No way am I sticking to something like that. I mean sure, I'll eat the big salad every day. And then I'll follow it up with a well-marbled steak and a baked potato.And possibly a big dish of ice cream. Because, frankly, I don't care if some of the other mice do live longer. At least I had a decent dinner.

To be honest, I pretty much skip the baked potato and the ice cream these days. I've been living on a highly modified (read: I cheat a lot) version of the Atkins diet for several months and it seems to be working for me. I read the late Dr. Atkins Age Defying Diet and noted that his criticism of the calorie restriction diet was the same as my own: it's just too damn hard. Reading his book, I got the impression that Atkins wanted to make the assertion that his low-carb program has the same effect on the system as Walford's calorie restriction, but he didn't have anything to back it up.

Now with this new research, we have evidence that something other than calorie restriction might produce the same benefits, or at least some of the same benefits. The fasting mice were not on a calorie-restricted diet per se. They got to pig out every other day and ended up eating as much as (or more) than the well-fed mice. I don't know whether this every-other-day diet thing would be easier than the big-salad-a-day diet, but it might be worth a try. In fact, I did try an eat-every-other-day diet for about 10 days to three weeks back in the early eighties. I can't remember whether it worked very well. All I remember is that I was dizzy all the time.

However, there's something else in this new research:

...Dr. Mattson and his colleagues found mice that were fasted every other day but were allowed to eat unlimited amounts on intervening days had lower blood glucose and insulin levels than either a control group, which was allowed to feed freely, or a calorically restricted group, which was fed 30 percent fewer calories daily than the control group....[emphasis added]

Dr. Mattson's team found that nerve cells of the meal-skipping mice were more resistant to neurotoxin injury or death than nerve cells of the mice on either of the other diets.

The reserch implies that the control of blood gluecose and insulin levels is what provided the mice their enhanced resistance to diabetes. This would be some vindication for Dr. Atkins, since getting these levels under control is at the core of his diet. So is it possible that a low-carb diet would provide the same diabetes-resistance as eating every other day? Maybe so. What I find intriguing is the possibility that this same moderation of insulin and glucose levels might have provided the mice with their resistance to neortoxin injury and the death of nerve cells. I have to be careful to point out that there's nothing in the research that makes this connection directly, but what if?

If such a link could be demonstrated, we would be well on our way to having people seek not only to lose weight, but actually to extend their lives by eating heavy cream and porkchops. Wherever Dr. Atkins is now, I have a feeling he's smiling.

Posted by Phil at 10:10 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 02, 2004

Why it Works

Calorie restriction, that is.

I always thought this was kind of a bad deal. Starve yourself by eating a paltry few hundred calories a day (of very nutrititious stuff like beets and kale and so forth) and take a lot of supplements and you have a good shot at significantly lengthening your lifespan. Great, but who wants to make it to 120 eating kale and beets?

Full disclosure: I love beets, especially the pickled kind. But you get my point. What do you get, like 400 calories? Hell, I eat more than that in the way of little "samples" that I take while cooking dinner! I'd never make it on the calorie restriction regime. I'm just not cut out for it, and I doubt that many are.

Well now, via Ray Kurzweil, here's some good news. Researchers at MIT have isolated an enzyme which is lowered when calories are restricted.

In previous research, Guarente found that rather than a slower metabolism leading to a slower rate of respiration, it turns out that respiration in yeast cells under calorie restriction goes up, not down. "A high respiration rate is intimately connected with calorie restriction in yeast," he said. "A high respiration rate activates SIR2. When respiration goes up, NADH goes down and SIR2 goes up. When SIR2 goes up, longevity happens."

This is good news, but these are early results. First off, the findings apply only to yeast. (Although it can be surprising to learn how closely related we humans are to what we would normally consider much lower forms of life.) Secondly, we're a long way from finding a way to increase SIR2 levels without the rabbit-food regimen.

But at least now we know what we're looking for.

Posted by Phil at 08:55 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 01, 2004

Preventing Alzheimer's

I missed this the other day on FuturePundit: Myelin Cholesterol and Iron Build-Up Leads To Alzheimer's.

As the brain continues to develop in adulthood and as myelin is produced in greater and greater quantities, cholesterol levels in the brain grow and eventually promote the production of a toxic protein that attacks the brain. The protein attacks myelin, disrupts message transfer through the axons and eventually leads to the brain/mind-destroying plaques and tangles visible years later in the cortex of Alzheimer's patients.

The good news:

Preventive therapies worth investigating include cholesterol- and iron-lowering medications, anti-inflammatory medications, diet and exercise programs and possibly hormone replacement therapy designed to prevent menopause rather than simply ease the symptoms. In addition, education or other activities designed to keep the mind active may stimulate the production of myelin. Finally, there may be ways to address genetic and environmental factors that accelerate the degeneration process.

The not-so-great news:

This new model of brain development and degeneration suggests that the best time to address the inevitability of myelin breakdown is when it begins, in middle age. By the time the effects of Alzheimer's disease become apparent in a patient's 60s, 70s or 80s, it may be too late to reverse the course of the disease.

So let's get on it, then, shall we? What is it they in the war blogs?

Faster, please.

Posted by Phil at 09:16 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 12, 2003

Lifeline Nutraceuticals

A reader by the name of Jackson was kind enough to provide a link to the web page of Lifeline Nutraceuticals, the Denver-based company we reported on earlier this week. The company is preparing to go to market with what they claim is a free-radical-fighting, life-extending supplement called Protandim. Owing to their geographic proximity to Speculist HQ, I'm going to try to pay a call on them and learn more about what it is they're doing.

Stay tuned.

Posted by Phil at 11:03 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 08, 2003

They're Working on a Cure for Aging

...right here in Denver.

Three Denver businessmen are gambling on a venture to sell a once-a-day pill they say could extend life spans to 120 years or more - without age-related scourges like cancer, heart disease or Alzheimer's.

"The problem is it almost sounds too good to be true," said Bill Driscoll, chief executive of Lifeline Nutraceuticals, the Denver company that plans to put the supplement on store shelves by late 2004.

It could take them 10 years to get to the market as a drug, but Lifeline may be able to offer their product as a food supplement by next year. To be branded as Protandim, the product is designed to produce (or rather encourage the producation of) a brain protein that fights disease-and-age-inducing free radicals via the production of antioxidants.

As Randall Parker has duly reported, there is good reason to believe that increasing antioxidant production will be helpful in minimizing the damage of aging. But if we really want to cure it, we will need something more like Aubrey de Grey's engineered negligible sesescence.

Posted by Phil at 10:58 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

A New Outrageous Extreme

I never even knew we had one, but now I tend to agree that we really do need a new one.

Posted by Phil at 10:29 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 03, 2003

How Long Have I Got, Doc?

Discover Magazine has an article about the limits of life extension:

A century ago, most Americans lived to be about 50. Today people over 100 make up the fastest-growing segment of the population. As some researchers bet that children born today will live to be 150, others say there is no upward limit on longevity

(Full article requires paid subscription.)

Two doctors are offering what they expect to be a $500 million reward in the year 2150 to the first person who can prove that he or she has lived 150 years.

I predict that there will be a lot of folks eligible to collect that prize. I also predict that $500 million won't buy you that much in 2150.

via KurzweilAI.net

Posted by Phil at 06:15 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack