"Life extension" and "radical life extension" are declining terms these days, less frequently used now that the scientific community is stepping closer to being able to build the means of greatly extending healthy life spans. The original overarching visions of far longer lives achieved through medical progress, laid out in the 70s and 80s and vague on the details, will fade away in the face of increasing specificity and concrete implementations. The communities who will in the years ahead launch companies and make money by building and distributing actual, working rejuvenation therapies: it is these people who will coin the new terms we use for the next few decades. For now there are intermediary categories: longevity science; rejuvenation biotechnology; an expansion of regeneration medicine to include treatment of aging. But I have no more idea than you as to what we'll be calling the rejuvenation therapies of the 2030s when those years are upon us. Language is a river, and you take it as it comes.
Aubrey de Grey is the cofounder of the Methuselah Foundation and SENS Research Foundation. He devotes half of his time to the coordination of research needed to speed progress towards working rejuvenation treatments and the other half traveling and speaking to persuade the rest of the world to help. If you ever find yourself doubting that we all live in a madhouse society, blind to what really matters, then consider that it is in fact very hard to persuade people to help with medical research that will prevent their future selves from suffering horribly. The population at large veers between disinterest in ensuring their future health and hostility to the idea that anyone else might be trying to better maintain their health by treating aging as a medical condition. No matter that more than 100,000 lives are lost to aging every day, while millions of others are in pain, decrepit and frail, most people still instinctively defend that status quo.
Here I'll link to a recent interview with de Grey in the technology press. The highly networked venture capital, entrepreneur, and technology community centered in California - but with growing outposts across the US - has been very supportive of SENS rejuvenation research over the years, at least in comparison to the rest of the population. Many of the most influential donors are from this community, and there is no doubt a retrospective to be written at some point at some point in the future, a work that will outline the connections and explain just why it is that the prospect of radically enhanced longevity achieved through medical progress strikes a chord so effectively with programmers and technology entrepreneurs.
Reese: What's the current state of the effort to "cure death"?
de Grey: Well, first off, let's be perfectly clear. I don't work on "curing death." I work on health. I work on keeping people healthy. And, yes, I understand that success in my work could translate into an important side effect, which is that people would, on average, live longer. But ultimately, the main thing people die of is being unhealthy, being sick. And if you can keep people less sick, it means that they're going to live longer. Now, it happens that the particular way in which I am working on stopping people from getting sick is a really comprehensive one that applies to all aspects of the ill health of old age, so the side effect is going to be bigger than people are used to. But still, it's just a side effect. I don't work on longevity. I work on health.
And another big thing to understand is that even if you think, well, this is just words, and I really do work on longevity, the fact is I still don't work on "curing death," because you can die of a whole bunch of other things. You can die by being hit by a truck. We can all die if we get hit by an asteroid. So it's all about health.
Reese: If you achieved all of your aims of curing all disease and promoting health, do you think the human body then has a natural limit to its life span?
de Grey: Absolutely not. I think that as things stand today, before the medicines that we are working on have come to fruition, that there is definitely a natural maximum life span, because there are various types of damage that the body does to itself as a side effect of the way the body works. The best example of this is breathing. Breathing is pretty damn nonnegotiable. But the effect of breathing is the creation of free radicals, which cause a lot of damage. So yes, damage is always happening, and right now there is only so much that we can do to minimize that rate, and there's only so much accumulated damage that we can tolerate.
But our work revolves around repairing that ongoing damage. And that will completely transcend any such limits. It's just like a vintage car. Vintage cars were not designed to last more than ten or 15 years, but preventive maintenance, so long as it's comprehensive, can completely transcend any such limits.
Reese: What do you think are going to be the social impacts of extending people's lives?
de Grey: There will be enormous social consequences, no question. But I think we need to look at this question a little bit more objectively than most people do. The fact is that, yes, we need to figure out issues like, how will we pay the pensions, and so forth, so everybody gets these therapies. But these are not new questions. Think about the Industrial Revolution. We didn't know what we were doing, we figured it out. We've got to remember that the main purpose is to stop people from getting sick just because they were born a long time ago. Ultimately, if you ask anyone - if you ask an audience, whether they want to get Alzheimer's disease, you're going to get a fairly unanimous "no."
And if you ask them whether they would like to get Alzheimer's disease when they reach the age of a hundred, you're still going to get the unanimous "no," and it's the same for cancer. It's the same for all of the diseases of old age. The real reason we get these crazy questions - you know, like "how will we make sure that this is available to everybody?" - is because they have this crazy, crazy idea in their heads that there is this thing called aging, that is in some way completely separate, completely unconnected with any disease. In biological reality, there is no such distinction.