With the recent publication of a fairly high profile survey on radical life extension, there has been more chatter than usual in the media and blogs on the topic of longevity science. That can only be a good thing: the more this subject is discussed, the more people will come to see healthy life extension through medical science as possible, plausible, and desirable. Greater public support is very much needed if we are to see the plausible means of human rejuvenation developed over the next few decades, soon enough to matter for those of us in the middle of life today.
Detailed plans for building therapies to lengthen the healthy human life span already exist, and a few organizations like the SENS Research Foundation are following those plans, but accomplishing this goal soon enough to matter is very much dependent on funding. There is little money for aging research in comparison to its importance to human health, let alone the small fraction of this research devoted to actually doing something about aging rather than just recording its effects or picking apart its mechanisms. Outside the work of the stem cell research community, some of which has relevance to reversal of aging, I'd be surprised to learn that more than $10 million / year is being spent on the foundations of rejuvenation therapies at this time.
(In comparison, efforts to slightly slow aging through drugs have probably consumed a billion dollars or more in the last decade, and with little to show for it. There are good reasons to think that rejuvenation research would be considerable less speculative and costly).
One thing I think that we'll see in the future is a growth in the number of media articles and public discussions that explicitly address one of the most important errors of belief regarding extending human life: people tend to think that medicine will make us older and decrepit for longer, rather than younger and healthier for longer, and this goes a long way towards explaining the lack of interest in extended life in the public at large. But this belief is false, as life extension is youth extension not old age extension. It has to be, because aging is damage at the level of cells and tissue structures, and the only meaningful ways to address aging involve repairing or preventing that damage. Less damage means that you are literally physically younger: less frail, with a lower risk of death, and greater vitality and function of your organs and biological systems.
More often these days I'm seeing media articles talk about this mistaken belief of extended frailty in the context of providing a correction: explaining that, no, researchers are in fact going to prolong youth or attempt to reverse the degenerations of aging by repairing the root causes of frailty and dysfunction. More of this sort of thing helps to lower the barrier presented by mistaken beliefs about longevity, opening the doors to greater growth in the number of people willing to materially support organizations like the SENS Research Foundation and their scientific work aimed at preventing and reversing aging and age-related disease. Here's a recent example of the sort of article I'm talking about:
In a New York City laboratory, a handful of mice are poised to outlive their peers by the human equivalent of 20 years. Not only will they hang around longer, but their extended lives will be fuller. They'll recall maze patterns faster than other elderly mice. Their muscles and tendons will be stronger. Their bones will be denser, their skin more supple.
[Yet in a recent survey] more than two-thirds of Americans gave their "ideal lifespan" as between 79 and 100 years old, with just 8 per cent wanting to hit the century mark. The answers were nearly uniform across the board, with 18- to 29-year-olds being the least likely to idealize living to 100.
Dr. Gloria Gutman, who founded the Gerontology Research Centre at Simon Fraser University, suspects the tepid American response to long life was influenced by the question's lack of clarity on staying healthy. "The average person thinks in the stereotypical point of view that old means decrepit. But if you're looking at it as extending the vitality of living, then why not? If I have my mental and physical capacity, then why wouldn't I want to live to see how my kids are going to spend my money and how my grandchildren are going to turn out? ... None of us wants to be drooling in a nursing home."
At the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Research Foundation in Mountain View, Calif., the thinking is that aging is a disease that can be controlled and "cured" through a variety of "rejuvenation biotechnologies," like a mechanic would keep a vintage car running indefinitely. The foundation spends millions of dollars a year on research to find ways to repair age-related damage to the body. An ongoing project seeks to extract "extracellular junk," malformed proteins that are no longer useful, from the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease.
"Most people have this idea that aging is natural and sometimes desirable, and the idea that we would come along and defeat aging just doesn't compute," said the foundation's chief scientist, Dr. Aubrey de Grey, who believes aging and death are neither synonymous nor inevitable. Is he really saying immortality is possible? "Of course not, there are always trucks on the road," de Grey said to accentuate his belief that while there are many causes of death, aging does not have to be one of them.