This article is an example of the rising awareness of ongoing research into altering the pace of aging so as to extend healthy life. This is a good thing if you are thinking about raising funds for research on therapies for aging, as the more public attention the better, even if it is focused at first on a poor choice of scientific strategy. Working to slow aging is a course that will produce only marginal benefits and a slight change in the course of life and structure of society: people will live a little longer, and the present trend of adding a year to adult life expectancy each decade will continue or speed up a little. Everything will be essentially the same at the end of the day, however, and we will all still suffer horribly from age-related diseases and die because of aging.
Aging is an accumulation of damage at the level of cells and protein structures, and altering our metabolism to slightly slow down that process is both hard and not all that beneficial, since none of the prospective or envisaged treatments can slow it down all that much. The best of paths to actual therapies at this point in time are not as beneficial as the practice of regular exercise or calorie restriction, and that isn't something that is expected to change any time soon.
My hope is that the current enthusiasm for slowing aging will give way to work on reversing aging, producing actual rejuvenation by repairing the damage of aging rather than just slowing it down. For that to happen, the currently minority field of rejuvenation research needs enough funding to demonstrate that it can produce far better results and for far less investment - which should be the case just as soon as the first prototype treatments are deployed in mice. Repair of a failing system is obviously better than building a new system that fails more slowly: existing old machinery can be restored, and that repair process can be performed over and again to extend its healthy life indefinitely. Further, the causes of aging are very much simpler and more completely understood than the details of our metabolic machinery; building ways to repair these causes is a much easier prospect than reengineering metabolism.
Viewed globally, the lengthening of life spans seems independent of any single, specific event. It didn't accelerate much as antibiotics and vaccines became common. Nor did it retreat much during wars or disease outbreaks. A graph of global life expectancy over time looks like an escalator rising smoothly. The trend holds, in most years, in individual nations rich and poor; the whole world is riding the escalator. Projections of ever-longer life spans assume no incredible medical discoveries - rather, that the escalator ride simply continues. If anti-aging drugs or genetic therapies are found, the climb could accelerate. Centenarians may become the norm, rather than rarities who generate a headline in the local newspaper.
Pie in the sky? On a verdant hillside in Marin County, California - home to hipsters and towering redwoods, the place to which the Golden Gate Bridge leads - sits the Buck Institute, the first private, independent research facility dedicated to extending the human life span. Since 1999, scientists and postdocs there have studied ways to make organisms live much longer, and with better health, than they naturally would. Already, the institute's researchers have quintupled the life span of laboratory worms. Most Americans have never heard of the Buck Institute, but someday this place may be very well known.
Buck is not alone in its pursuit. The University of Michigan, the University of Texas, and the University of California at San Francisco are studying ways to slow aging, as is the Mayo Clinic. Should research find a life-span breakthrough, the proportion of the U.S. population that is elderly - fated to rise anyway, considering declining fertility rates, the retirement of the Baby Boomers, and the continuing uplift of the escalator - may climb even more. But the story might have a happy ending. If medical interventions to slow aging result in added years of reasonable fitness, life might extend in a sanguine manner, with most men and women living longer in good vigor, and also working longer, keeping pension and health-care subsidies under control. Indeed, the most-exciting work being done in longevity science concerns making the later years vibrant, as opposed to simply adding time at the end.