A Discussion with Aubrey de Grey and Walter Bortz

A time-honored journalistic strategy is to put two interesting people with disparate views on their field in the same room to see what they have to say. In this case the subject is aging, longevity, and the prospects for extending healthy human life spans. The introductory blurb is quoted below, but the piece is long, with a lot of commentary from the participants - so click through and read the whole thing:

Bortz and de Grey have never met before, but they have a lot to talk about. I've asked them to come to the Tied House today - de Grey from eight blocks away, where his SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Research Foundation is headquartered; Bortz from nearby Stanford, where he teaches medicine - to discuss a subject that has obsessed both of them for decades: the process of aging, and how it may change in the decades ahead. Questions about the future of aging have been in the air lately. Are humans on the cusp of living to 120, 130, or more? What will aging look like in this new world of longevity? Will we just be adding 30, 40, 50 years to the end of life, or can we delay the process and lead normal lives to such advanced ages? Is 100 the new 60?

Neither Bortz nor de Grey is a stranger to publicity. A former co-chairman of the American Medical Association's Task Force on Aging and past president of the American Geriatrics Society, Bortz, a physician by training, is one of America's foremost experts on robust aging, having published more than 150 scientific articles on the subject. His "thesis," as he calls it, is that exercise is the key to extending the human life span. "We know enough to live 100 healthy years," Bortz says, "but we screw it up."

De Grey, meanwhile, has been a favorite subject for journalists since the early 2000s. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, he studied computer science; his specialty was artificial intelligence. But soon after graduation, he met and married Adelaide Carpenter, a Cambridge fruit-fly geneticist 19 years his senior, took over the genetics department's drosophila database, and immersed himself in the biology of aging. In 1999, de Grey published The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging; a year later, Cambridge awarded him a Ph.D.

De Grey's new theories were grand. He believed that by dividing the diseases of old age into seven categories of cellular and molecular damage, and then by working to conquer each category through as-yet-undeveloped medical technologies, it would be possible to "cure" aging - not to stop it, or to slow it, but to repair and reverse it, the way one would restore an aging automobile, and to live indefinitely as a result. In 2000, de Grey co-founded the Methuselah Foundation, which awarded multimillion-dollar grants to scientists who extended the healthy life span of mice, and in 2009, the organization evolved into SENS, a nonprofit that sponsors and funds scientific rejuvenation research. Its major benefactor is Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal.

Link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2013/07/24/you-can-live-forever-is-immortality-plausible-or-is-it-quack-science.html


"Bortz: I didn’t believe it. Maybe a couple thousand years from now it might happen."

It kind of bugs me when otherwise rational people throw around such ridiculously large numbers around like this. A couple thousand years? Really? Is he aware that civilization itself is only a couple thousand years old? And our technological civilization has only existed for a couple hundred of those? We're not talking about building a damn Dyson sphere here.

Posted by: Mindrust at July 24th, 2013 4:43 PM

"Bortz: My definition of aging is broader in that it’s not just human-driven. It’s universal. Everything in the universe ages. To me, aging is the effect of an energy flow on matter over time. That is not confined to life."

I'm sceptical of its relevance to human aging, but when speaking in such sweeping generalities as this, what about Turritopsis nutricula? How embarrassing for a cosmic truism to founder on a little jellyfish. Furthermore, what about the germ-cell lineages of all organisms?

If there's any truth in his statement it is the underlying thermodynamic principle that entropy always increases in a **closed** system. To be a closed system, our "universal" definition needs to be at least "universal" enough to include that big, glowing ball of gas we call the Sun. The Sun is indeed winding its way toward demise as a red giant and then ultimately a white dwarf in billions of years time. We are part of an (almost, practically) closed system with the Sun, but there is no physical law or general principle to dictate that any particular part of a closed system needs to "age" faster than any other. This means that life on Earth only can't age much more slowly than the Sun, an almost meaninglessly permissive constraint. There's a lot of room for improvement between 80 years and ~ 5 billion years!

"Bortz: Give me a hundred years. I can still screw. I can still run. And then I’m home."

He's full of it. Trouble is, as long as we don't have therapies that can make people younger, they can just go on saying stuff like this. Those of us who support anti-aging medicine would all love to give Dr. Bortz the opportunity to demonstrate his mendacity as he jumped with everyone else on new therapies that could allow him to screw well and run well, rather than just "well for his age." It's only natural and indeed healthy to want more out of life.

Posted by: José at July 24th, 2013 9:51 PM

Now I have something to say about sensationalism. I clicked through to the issue cover to find that they couldn't resist "forever" and "immortality." Neither interviewee had anything to say about these concepts, and this kind of misrepresentation does a disservice to the reader. I won't harp on it in detail, because it's all been said many times.

I will note however that sensationalistic language has a cost. In the blurb for the story just below this one it says sexual assault or publicity about it "destroys the lives" of victims. Many people have been victim of sexual assault, and how do you think reading that their lives are "destroyed" makes them feel? It's not the place of reporters using sensationalistic language to determine the value of other people's lives. Those people have the right to determine meaning and value for themselves, but sensationalistic language is hurtful, arrogantly presumptuous in passing judgement and frames the discussion in a dis-empowering way.

Whether it's how we treat victims of crime or how we treat technological issues that have such great importance to our future, words are the ingredients of world-views. They make a difference and we should choose them carefully.

Posted by: José at July 24th, 2013 10:39 PM

These discussions are always so discouraging each time Aubrey De Grey is confronted with so-called "aging experts"! This one is an expert in aging?
Does he know that exercise -the only way for him to reach old age - is NOT a factor of longevity for supercentenarians???
Jeanne Calment was NOT an marathon runner addict, neither the other longevity champions.
Even if exercise is crucial to reach a decent age (like 75 y.o) and on a society level (due to economies of scale) nothing of this sort is important on an individual level.
To be short, he can run so much he wants, it won't save him from Alzheimer, cancers etc. He can only be thankful to his parents which gave him good genes, like Jeanne Calment's parents for example.
Studies about that : http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/03/genes-key-longevity-lifestyle-modifiable-behavior_n_917145.html

Posted by: L'immortel at July 28th, 2013 1:13 PM

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