Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old is a forthcoming book discussing the aging research community and its newfound interest in treating aging as a medical condition. Aging is the cause of age-related disease and mortality, and far longer, far healthier lives lie ahead in the era in which the mechanisms of aging are targeted, rather than only their consequences. In this popular press article, the author and the book are discussed. The views are sensible and forward-looking, suggesting that it may be worth picking up when it is published in a few months.
The author began professional life as a physicist. As a child, he was fascinated by space, the way many scientists are. But he has spent the past three years researching a book about biogerontology, the scientific study of ageing, in which he argues the case for a future in which our lives go on and on. He considers ageing "the greatest humanitarian issue of our time". When he describes growing old as "the biggest cause of suffering in the world," he is being earnest.
In the past three decades biogerontological research has accelerated, and recent successes have sparked excitement. A 2015 study, published by the Mayo Clinic, in the US, found that using a combination of existing drugs - dasatinib, a cancer medicine, and quercetin, which is sometimes used as a dietary suppressant - to remove senescent cells in mice "reversed a number of signs of ageing, including improving heart function". A 2018 study that used the same drugs found that the combination "slowed or partially reversed the ageing process" in older mice. After the success in mice, the first trial aimed at removing senescent cells in humans began in 2018, and others are ongoing. "This collection of evidence is tantalising, and foreshadows a future where ageing will be treated. Scientists are rightly sceptical, but it's important to say that a lot of significant breakthroughs could happen in the lifespan of people alive today."
When the author brings up his work with people, the question he gets asked most often is: "What about overpopulation?" He has a go-to answer he thinks highlights the ridiculousness of the question. "Imagine we're staring down the barrel of 15 billion people on Earth. There are lots of ways to try and tackle that problem. Would one of them be: invent ageing?" That he is asked this question so frequently frustrates him. More so, he is bothered by the implication that what he is suggesting is somehow weird or inhuman or unholy, rather than ultimately helpful for society. "If I'd just written a book about how we're going to cure childhood leukaemia using some amazing new medicine, literally nobody would be like, 'But isn't that going to increase the global population?'"
He shakes his head. "What I'm saying is, 'Here is an idea that could cure cancer, heart disease, stroke...' Curing any one of those things would get you plaudits. But as soon as you suggest a potentially effective way of dealing with them altogether, suddenly you're some mad scientist who wants to overpopulate us into some terrible environmental apocalypse?" The author considers this a major hurdle in biogerontology's potential success - our "incredible bias toward the status quo" of ageing as an inevitable process, and our inability to accept it as preventable. "If we lived in a society where there was no ageing, and suddenly two-thirds of people started degenerating over decades, started losing their strength, started losing their mental faculties, and then succumbing to these awful diseases, it would be unthinkable. And of course, we'd set to work trying to cure it."