LONGEVITY MEME NEWSLETTER
September 20 2004
The Longevity Meme Newsletter is a weekly e-mail containing news, opinions and happenings for people interested in healthy life extension: making use of diet, lifestyle choices, technology and proven medical advances to live healthy, longer lives.
- The Problem With Immortality
- Latest Healthy Life Extension Headlines
THE PROBLEM WITH IMMORTALITY
The problem with immortality is really a problem with people, and it extends to any discussion of the topic. As soon as you mention immortality outside of a religious context you are in danger of being lumped in with the vocal wingnut and oddball fringe. Sadly, these are the people who tend to make the most noise outside of theological circles - vendors of magnetic rings, self-proclaimed mystics and the like.
From where I stand, the problem is the same as that suffered by anti-aging science and medicine - a confusion of alternate meanings, many of which are colloquial or specific to certain groups or professions. I have previously outlined the way in which something as simple as diverging definitions for similar words and phrases can cause deep, costly and long-lasting problems:
Merriam-Webster defines the state of immortality as being "exempt from death," or "exempt from oblivion." This definition is not used in many modern day discussions of immortality, however - neither by the wingnuts nor more sensible folk. We can look at J.R.R. Tolkien and derived formulaic modern fantasy for a good example of colloquial immortality: The ageless elves of Tolkien and his imitators are referred to as immortal but are not exempt from death or oblivion. I will not attempt to pinpoint the origins of this alternative meaning of vulnerable agelessness - I suspect that it goes back a lot further than fifty years - but it is in common use.
In scientific, rational circles - such as the cryonics community or Immortality Institute forums - the term "physical immortality" is often used to denote "vulnerable agelessness," or freedom from the degenerative effects of aging. For many people, this accurately describes the ultimate goal of medical science: prevent or cure all disease, disability and degeneration, thus allowing people to live in perfect health for as long as they desire. This sounds like an admirable goal to me! A physical immortal, enabled by future medical technologies, could still die through accident or violence - physical immortality has no bearing on spiritual or religious matters, and it is quite different from the dictionary definition of "immortality."
So what can we do - what should we do - when the wingnuts, frauds and a collision of definitions have rendered it hard to discuss a sensible topic in public? It's a tough problem, and not one that has an easy solution. History teaches us that until science and the market can provide a desired product, there will be any number of borderline or outright fraudulent imitations sold to the credulous - but the noisy marketplace for those imitations damages the chances of real progress. Who funds physical immortality research in medical science or publishes on the topic when everyone knows that only wingnuts use the word "immortality?" While any talk of "physical immortality research" is far in advance of reality, it's certainly worth discussion as a serious long-term goal in front of a wider public audience.
You can see this same wingnut- and definition-driven dynamic in action in the tension between serious anti-aging science and the anti-aging marketplace - and my own two-cent answer to the question "what can we do" is "activism."
If there are enough people talking sense - about anti-aging science, healthy life extension or physical immortality - then topics can be rehabilitated in the eyes of the public and media ... and that ultimately leads to support, funding, research and progress.
That is all for this issue of the newsletter. The highlights and headlines from the past two weeks follow below.
Remember - if you like this newsletter, the chances are that your friends will find it useful too. Forward it on, or post a copy to your favorite online communities. Encourage the people you know to pitch in and make a difference to the future of health and longevity!
Founder, Longevity Meme
LATEST HEALTHY LIFE EXTENSION HEADLINES
Exercise And Calorie Restriction Are Good (September 19 2004)
Reuters reports on yet another study showing just how good exercise and calorie restriction are for your health. In this case, they are shown to dramatically reduce risk factors for diabetes: "Men who restricted their calorie intake not only lost a significant amount of weight and had a nearly six percent reduction in body fat, but their insulin concentrations were also reduced by 40 percent on the glucose tolerance test." This isn't rocket science - it's just good preventative maintenance for what is, in essence, a complex machine. If you want to be healthy and active (and alive!) to benefit from the healthy life extension medicine of the future, then you have to take care of your body in the here and now.
Timing And Results In Medical Research (September 19 2004)
USA Today aptly illustrates a number of problems relating to the way in which people think about medical research. Gene therapy is offered up as a technology hyped as offering cures for age-related conditions (amongst others), but is now perceived as having "gone nowhere" because commercial results have not been achieved within a decade. This is nonsense - the field of gene therapy is still healthy, active and in development. Media-driven expectations of instant gratification present a problem for stem cell research as well, but: "I can find no example where over the long term we have not moved ahead for research for cures of major diseases." We can certainly hope so.
Calorie Restriction In Primates (September 18 2004)
While a human study on the beneficial effects of calorie restriction is underway, researchers are still working with primate subjects in order to better understanding the processes involved. The University of Maryland Diamondback takes a look at a decade-long study of calorie restriction in rhesus monkies: "So far, the rhesus monkeys' calorie-restriction diet has produced results similar to those of the rodent study." In other words, better health and a slowdown in the measurable degeneration associated with aging. The human studies to date are producing equally good results, although the comparatively long human life span (still too short for my liking!) makes it much harder to find definitive data.
On Historical Increases In Life Span (September 18 2004)
Life expectancy for humans has doubled over the last 150 years as a result of progress in medical science. Medical News Today reports on a new study that links specific advances to the historical increase in average healthy life span. "Infectious diseases cause chronic inflammation in the blood that, decades later, leads to heart attacks, strokes and cancers – the classic killers of old age ... chronic infections from childhood onward accelerated vascular and other diseases." Suffering chronic disease during childhood - a common state of affairs in past decades - damages your body and thus reduces your chance of a longer, healthier life. This makes perfect sense if you consider the reliability theory of aging.
Priorities And Urgency In Medical Research (September 17 2004)
A line from this Pacific News Service article: "Progress is just not fast enough for the 47,000 people who have died of Parkinson's disease, or the 150,000 who have succumbed to Alzheimer's disease, since Bush's decision on August 9, 2001. This is worse than a World Trade Center collapse every month." While the article confuses the effects of public funding decisions with the effects of actual attempts to ban research, these figures provide a reminder not visible elsewhere in the public debate over embryonic stem cell research. Thousands of people die each and every day from age-related conditions that stem cell based regenerative medicine will most likely one day cure. The sooner that day arrives, the more lives will be saved - any and all delays have a terrible cost.
Alzheimer's Research Progress (September 17 2004)
Betterhumans reports that "a new antibody treatment for Alzheimer's has apparently halted its progression in a small human trial." The trial had only five participants, so we should not draw conclusions from such a small sample. "While cognitive function improved marginally in four patients, their condition didn't worsen, which might have been expected after six months. Visual tasks improved in three of the patients and stayed the same in the other two." This work builds on previous research in mice showing that antibodies can clear the buildup of beta amyloid plaques in the brain. This is a promising step towards a much-needed therapy, but there is a way to go yet.
Politics, Obfuscation And Hyperbole (September 16 2004)
USA Today takes a look at the state of stem cell research politics in the US, finding that all sides are guilty of hyperbole and outright lies. No surprise there. While embryonic stem cell research "represents a breakthrough in terms of medical therapy that has been unprecedented since antibiotics and anesthesia," commercially available therapies are still some years - or even a decade or two - away. Opponents use the uncertainty inherent in research in their fight to suppress freedom of science for ideological reasons. But as Irving Weissman says, "If you have to prove ahead of time that something has to work before you will fund it, then stop funding all NIH research. Medical research is about discovery."
Stem Cells Regenerate Retinas (September 16 2004)
From Betterhumans, news of research suggesting that adult stem cells can be used to regenerate the damage caused by certain kinds of degenerative blindness. "Stem cells, injected into the eyes of mice with a model of retinitis pigmentosa, lead to the development of blood vessels. Some stem cells were found to incorporate into the vasculature of the retina while others took up residence very close to blood vessels. This provided a protective effect, rescuing and stabilizing the retinal vessels when they would otherwise degenerate." As scientists experiment with adult stem cells - an uncontroversial and thus well supported field - we can expect to see more of these sorts of potential therapies come to light.
Practical Regenerative Medicine (September 15 2004)
EurekAlert reports on a good example of research into practical regenerative medicine: "By combining stem cell science with orthopedic surgery, a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute aims to reduce the 10 per cent failure rate in hip replacements and make repeat replacements and other joint repairs obsolete within 10-15 years." This may sound prosaic compared to some work in stem cell research, but improvements in the reliability, effectiveness and economics of treating age-related joint failure are a big deal. The future of medicine is composed of thousands of advances like this one; by supporting research, we help to ensure our own future health and longevity.
The Cost of Age-Related Disease (September 15 2004)
This Sacramento Bee article discusses an economic study by the Proposition 71 organization (the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative). Such studies - extrapolations and educated guesswork, really - should always be taken with a large pinch of salt, but some of the underlying data should give you pause for thought. In particular, the economic cost of disease: medical services over a lifetime can top a million dollars, nearly all of that due to common, chronic age-related conditions in later life. Diabetes and cardiovascular disease are expensive propositions, for example. Good insurance is key, but far better to support medical research into real preventation and reliable cures!
Looking At Calorie Restriction (September 14 2004)
The Salt Lake Tribune takes a look at calorie restriction, the CR Society and the ongoing CALERIE study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging. You may recall that the first results from that study were announced earlier in the year, and very impressive they were too. Now that scientists have a better handle on the genetics and biochemistry of calorie restriction, a fair amount of time and effort is going towards uncovering drugs to mimic beneficial effects on health and life span (but without the dieting). Companies like Elixir and BioMarker - amongst others - are racing to develop and commercialize some form of calorie restriction mimetic. We should expect interesting progress in this field over the next few years.
SAGE Crossroads On Mitochondria (September 14 2004)
The latest SAGE Crossroads weekly article discusses mitochondria, our cellular powerhouses: "Recent studies have implicated unchecked mitochondrial decay in Alzheimer's disease (AD), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), obesity, diabetes, and aging itself ... some studies have suggested that one of our most popular all-purpose panaceas--exercise--acts in part by slowing and perhaps suspending the mitochondrial countdown." Repairing, replacing or moving mitochondrial DNA is on biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey's engineering list. If, for example, we could move mitochondrial DNA into the comparatively well-protected cell nucleus, we would be in much better shape to resist ongoing damage.
Nanotechnology And Cancer (September 13 2004)
As previously noted at Fight Aging!,, the National Cancer Institute has announced a nanotechnology initiative. "Nanotechnology has the potential to radically increase our options for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer ... Nanotechnology supports and expands the scientific advances in genomics and proteomics and builds on our understanding of the molecular underpinnings of cancer. These are the pillars which will support progress in cancer." Basic cancer research - understanding how our cells and bodies function at the molecular level - will also support the fight to cure aging. The more we know, the more we can do. You can find out more about the NCI initiative at their new website.
More Stem Cell Straight Talk (September 13 2004)
Unbiased discussion of stem cell research (embryonic and adult) is something we certainly need to see more often at the moment. Here, the Wisconsin Technology Network prints comments from an influential scientist in the field: "There are still some fundamental reasons why embryonic stem cells, as well as stem cells taken from adults, are needed for research breakthroughs in the next decade." Some anti-research factions are trying to portray adult stem cell research as sufficient for the future of regenerative medicine. While some very promising first generation therapies use adult stem cells, embryonic stem cell research is essential to the long term goal of developing a regenerative repair kit for human beings.