Longevity Meme Newsletter, November 08 2004

November 08 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.



- Trapped in the Era of Whistler's Mother
- Obesity, Cancer and Jay Olshansky - All Just As Bad?
- Discussion
- Latest Healthy Life Extension Headlines


I happened across an article yesterday that reminded me just how much attitudes towards later life lag behind the developing reality.

"Consider that iconic vision of old age depicted in James Whistler's famous portrait of his mother, known as "Whistler's Mother." She is shown seated, grim-faced and feeble, with a lace cap covering a down-turned head. She was only 67 when she posed for the painting."

Today's average health-conscious 67 year-olds are likely to be found jogging, riding, dancing and generally enjoying an active life. Yet ask a younger person to paint a mental picture of life after retirement, and what do you get? Whistler's Mother. It's as if a hundred years of medical science - and a good few medical revolutions - have failed to properly impact our impressions of the world we live in and the future of our own lives.


This is clearly a problem in the context of developing greater public support for serious research into extending the healthy human life span. I believe it ties in to a number of common misconceptions regarding healthy life extension - who wants to think about spending more time as Whistler's Mother rather than more time enjoying an active, full life?


These attitudes and views must change if we are to see the sort of widespread understanding and support needed for rapid advances in medicine for longer, healthier lives. Appreciation for the future of medical research starts with an appreciation of the great gains achieved by past generations of scientists.


One of the few points on which I agree with Jay Olshansky is that obesity has been convincingly demonstrated to be just as bad as cancer - on average, in terms of the likely affect on your life span. This is a very sobering and motivating thought. I often point out studies that show how or to what degree excess fat in your body damages you. The risk of many age-related conditions is greatly increased by even a modest excess of weight; body fat is, in a way, a form of self-sabotaging extra organ, releasing chemicals that make the complex machinery of your body run down that much faster. I don't think I can mention this too often, so here it is again:


How much do cancer and obesity reduce life expectancy worldwide? 3.5 years each according to the article referenced in the following post:


Whenever I post about Jay Olshansky, a sociologist by training, I usually receive a few strongly worded comments. Olshanksy's views on the feasibility of extending the healthy human life span (that it can't be done, for the most part) are widely regarded as indefensible. Indeed, he has not rigorously defended them in the light of the sort of science proposed by biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey and others:


While the forward-looking scientific community tends to ignore Jay Olshansky, he is getting his ideas mentioned in the media more often these days. There, he attempts to convince the wider world that healthy life extension is impossible, or at least so hard that we shouldn't expect to see any significant gains in our lifetime. The question is this: Just how much damage is Jay Olshansky doing to your life expectancy by damping enthusiasm for research into extending the human life span? More than cancer? Less than cancer? How about in comparison to the activities of Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama of the President's Council on Bioethics?


Aubrey de Grey makes a fair case for developing rejuvenation medicine in mice over a decade, followed by perhaps another decade to bring the results into widespread commercial availability. In this scenario, human lives - and life expectancies - are extended by additional healthy decades, not just a couple of years:


This project requires a high level of funding, however - and large scale, distributed medical research projects require public understanding and support of the sort that Olshansky, Kass, Fukuyama and others are working to suppress.


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



Competing For Proposition 71 Funds (November 07 2004)
The Monterey Herald reports that research institutions in California are off to a quick start in the competition for state funding authorized by Proposition 71. It is likely to take six months or more for anything to happen at the government level, but preparations are underway. The article emphasises the importance of therapeutic cloning - a technology still under threat of criminalization - to research into curing age-related disease. "There are many human diseases, like Alzheimer's or Lou Gehrig's, that are genetic diseases. We are even honing in on some of the genes that might be involved." But without therapeutic cloning, "We don't understand how the disease develops and how to go in the direction to find cures for those diseases."

Aubrey De Grey On A Cure For Aging (November 07 2004)
From the Life Extension Foundation News: "Aubrey de Grey reckons 'we have a 50-50 chance of developing a human rejuvenation therapy that works.' His timetable calls for 10 years to prove the scheme works for mice, and another five years to apply the techniques to humans. From then on, 'radical life extension' will mean 'the indefinite postponement of aging.'" On the other side of the coin: "Olshansky believes it is misguided to regard aging as a 'disease' that can be 'fixed.' Instead, he sees it as the inevitable result of irreparable cellular damage that is a byproduct of living." Olshansky's views are widely regarded as indefensible - some cellular damage can already be repaired, and the research required to repair the rest is not a mystery.

Economic Benefits Of Longer Lives (November 06 2004)
Robert Fogel will be speaking in Berkeley later this month on the economic implications of increasing healthy life span and better medicine over the course of the 20th century. A choice quote: "Fogel argued in a recent lecture that assessments of economic gains over the past 130 years should include the 50-percent likelihood that a U.S. student today will reach the age of 100 'in good health.'" This is, of course, a very conservative projection given current research trends. Increased life span brings greater opportunities for wealth and further increases in life span: "The advances in the first half of the 20th century have been greatly underestimated because economists have concentrated on wealth but ignored gains in health and longevity."

Cellular Housekeeping And Longevity (November 06 2004)
EurekAlert examines advances in our understanding of cellular recycling: "This process of internal house-cleaning in the cell is called autophagy - literally self-eating - and it is now considered the second form of programmed cell death." Like many cellular mechanisms, this turns out to have relevance to cancer and aging. "Laboratory mice with suppressed autophagy also appears to have a higher rate of spontaneous tumors ... Autophagy activity is known to decrease with aging ... Conversely, more autophagy may prolong life. This fits with findings that caloric restriction can extend the life span in rats, since near-starvation triggers more autophagy as the cells recycle parts of themselves for fuel."

Biomarker For Aging Found? (November 05 2004)
(From EurekAlert). An accurate and easily measured biomarker for the aging process would be an important step forward, and researchers may have found one: "As cells and tissues age, the expression of two proteins called p16INK4a and ARF dramatically increases. This increase in expression, more than a hundredfold in some tissues, suggests a strong link between cellular aging and the upregulation, or increased production, of p16INK4a and ARF. ... Both p16INK4a and ARF are known potent tumor suppressors, or proteins that halt tumor cell growth. The study suggests that the important anti-cancer function of these proteins to limit cellular growth might in turn cause aging. ... the increase in p16INK4a and ARF can be substantially inhibited by decreasing caloric intake, a known retardant of aging."

Randall Parker On Alzheimer's Research (November 05 2004)
Commentary on recent Alzheimer's research can be found over at FuturePundit. "Injected antibodies might avoid the side effects produced by vaccination against Alzheimer's amyloid plaques. ... While the Elan Pharmaceuticals experimental vaccine AN-1792 against Alzheimer's amyloid plaques caused brain inflammmation in a small subset of people treated I still think a better vaccine may be able to eventually work well against amyloid plaques. In fact, a new oral vaccine has just been tested in mice and shows promise." Some other good points are made regarding the payoff from investment in medical research - it's always better in the long term to be doing more to cure age-related degenerative conditions.

More Good Telomere Research (November 04 2004)
Betterhumans reports on interesting developments in telomere research. Telomeres serve as protective caps for our chromosomes and regulate planned cell death. They also become shorter throughout the body as we age. "Researchers Mariuca Vasa-Nicotera, Scott Brouilette and colleagues from the University of Leicester in the UK have linked differences in telomere length in humans to a region on chromosome 12." In addition to the aging process, cancer development has been linked to shortened telomeres. Establishing a good candidate gene for telomere length may open the door for genetic therapies to lengthen telomeres - something that biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey considers an important advance in the fight to cure aging.

Genetic Research Means Longer Lives Ahead (November 04 2004)
From MENAFN, commentary on the significance of medical research currently taking place from biotech writer Gina Smith. "Look at what [Cynthia Kenyon is] doing. Molecular geneticists like her are already helping identify the proteins that inhibit aging in animals. I can't believe we won't make improvements in human anti-aging treatments in the next 100 years. ... The premise is that we can slow down the aging process. And if we can do that, we can reduce the risks for all kinds of diseases. Cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis - the risks for all of these go up as you get old. But if we can slow down the aging process, we can reduce risk." The basic research taking place now is vital to the future of longer, healthier lives - but we must see more directed and less incidental healthy life extension.

Stem Cells Deliver Cancer Therapy (November 03 2004)
(From bio.com). In a clever piece of work, scientists have demonstrated that the natural mechanisms of stem cells can be used to deliver gene therapy to tumors in the body. "The researchers then used a virus to deliver a particular gene that has therapeutic action against cancer into the stem cells. When given back through an intravenous injection, the millions of engineered mesenchymal progenitor cells engraft where the tumor environment is signaling them, and then activate the therapeutic gene." This is quite ingenious, utilitizing the normal stem cell response to injury that has been subverted by cancer in order to grow tumors. "This drug delivery system is attracted to cancer cells no matter what form they are in or where they are."

Proposition 71 Passes (November 03 2004)
MSNBC reports that California Proposition 71 has passed. "Proposition 71 authorizes the state to sell $3 billion in bonds and then dispense nearly $300 million a year for 10 years to researchers for human embryonic stem-cell experiments, including cloning projects intended solely for research purposes." The current US administration is strongly opposed to this research, and has shown itself willing to intervene in states where local law and federal policies are at odd - in matters relating to drugs and euthanasia, for example. In addition, the long term effects of this proposition, as with all government actions, are far from certain. The fight to support research into regenerative medicine is by no means over.

Aging As Power Failure (November 02 2004)
The Boston Globe examines the evidence for mitochrondrial damage as a root cause of aging. "The evidence is piling up but not yet definitive. It is grounded in the knowledge that mitochondrial function deteriorates with age, that mitochondria generate damaging molecules called free radicals, and that mutations accumulate in mitochondrial genes, some of them caused by free-radical assault." This is a hot area for research right now - and deservedly so. We need more research funding for important basic science like this! From the conservative side of the science bench: "Mitochondria are a source of energy and a lot of damage. But the body is designed to deal with a lot of this. I'd like to be a believer, but I also have to remain skeptical until we see rigorous proof."

Induced Neurogenesis In Mice (November 02 2004)
Wired reports on successful efforts to induce the regeneration of neurons in mice: "They induced the birth of new cells by killing nearby neurons in mice, which set off a cascade of events that led to stem cells, also called precursor cells, producing new neurons in the cerebral cortex. If scientists can turn this into a therapy for humans, it would mean that patients could literally heal themselves with stem cells already present in their brains." This initial methodology is not one that would be used in humans; the object here is to study the chemical signals and cellular processes involved. Once those can be replicated, the door is wide open for brain regeneration in humans - and therapies for neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Towards Radical Life Extension (November 01 2004)
Futurist Ray Kurzweil discusses his views of the path to radical life extension over at PCWorld. While I don't agree with his emphasis on current old school life extension strategies like pills and supplements, Kurzweil has a good vision for the healthy life extension technologies of the future. "There is a connection between my work on longevity and my role as an inventor overall. In order to time my inventions, I became interested in technology trends, and that has taken on a life of its own. ... Based on these models, we can anticipate the emerging role of biotechnology and nanotechnology on our health. That is how Dr. Grossman and I developed our 'bridge to a bridge to a bridge' concept for radical life extension." You and I can help bring these future medical technologies closer by donating to groups like the Methuselah Foundation.

The Scientific Conquest Of Death (November 01 2004)
The first Immortality Institute book of essays is now available at Amazon.com. It includes work by scientists like Michael Rose, Michael West, Robert Freitas, Aubrey de Grey, Marvin Minsky and João Pedro de Magalhães, writing alongside futurists and transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil, Max More and Mike Treder. How can we best work towards defeating the aging process and preventing all age-related disease? How rapidly could we attain these goals and how much would it cost? What would an ageless future society look like, and what technologies would be required to support it? How does this all fit in with current trends in accelerating technological development? You can read more about the book and these authors at the Immortality Institute website.



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