Grim Reaper 4

Every generation has tried to be the one that outsmarts the Reaper. From the millennia-old Epic of Gilgamesh to the centuries-old story of the Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon, who discovered Florida in his search for the fountain of youth, legends abound of how we might live forever.

The belief that science can make us live forever is not only wrong - it’s dangerous

Stephen Cave

Today, we are more determined than ever to halt the clock. We have a Dorian Grey-like obsession with youth and beauty, pursuing that elusive elixir through diet, surgery, pills and potions. But will any of it work and should we want it to?

During the Cambridge Science Festival (11-24 March) a number of talks and debates contemplate this very subject – staying young, healthy and the possibilities of living forever.

Of course, most of us want to remain young but, given the chance, do we really want to live forever? This extraordinary concept is the topic of a debate – The science and science fiction of immortality: can we and should we live forever? – between three leading experts, biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, philosopher Stephen Cave and biochemist Guy Brown, at the Cambridge Science Festival on March 15.

Dr Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation, and an author and theoretician in the field of gerontology, passionately supports the theory that human beings could live to lifespans far beyond that which we live today. De Grey's research focuses on whether regenerative medicine can impede the ageing process. He works on the development of what he calls ‘Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence’ (SENS), a tissue-repair strategy intended to rejuvenate the human body and reduce symptoms of ageing.

To this end, he has identified seven types of molecular and cellular damage caused by essential metabolic processes. SENS is a proposed group of therapies designed to repair this damage.

Dr de Grey said: “In the decade since I first put forward the heretical idea that biomedically reversing the side effects of ageing might actually be much easier than merely slowing down those side-effects, progress in various areas of regenerative medicine has combined to convince many sceptics that this approach is at least worthy of consideration alongside more traditional alternatives.

“However, there is a wholly inappropriate tendency for some to fixate on the longevity benefits, as opposed to the health benefits. Depending on exactly what sort of medicine works against ageing, the longevity side-effects may be quite dramatic, but they are still a side-effect. What matters in the crusade to defeat ageing is the preservation of health.”

Dr Stephen Cave, author of the internationally acclaimed book, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilisation, offers an alternative, cautionary viewpoint. He proposes that we are compelled to pursue immortality, but that it is a mirage. Our attempts to conquer death have driven human achievement across every facet of society – art, religion, science, and civilisation. But they have also lead to war, extremism and wasted lives. Modern stories of scientific cures for ageing he puts on a par with mummification or the alchemists’ elixirs.

He said: “The belief that science can make us live forever is not only wrong - it’s dangerous! It’s wrong because our bodies are not built to last for eternity. Trying to keep them patched up much beyond the usual lifespan is like trying to bandage together a statue that is turning to dust.

“But the belief in a modern-day elixir of life is dangerous for three reasons: first, because it’s a false promise, it brings science into disrepute - at a time when we need the insights of science and scientists to tackle global problems like climate change.  Second, it’s an expensive mistake. In the US alone, people part with over $80 billion per year for anti-ageing products, with Europeans not far behind - even though, in the words of the American National Institute on Aging, ‘there are no specific therapies proven to prevent ageing’. And third, the promise that science will soon discover an elixir of life encourages people to deny the inevitable.”

Cave offered a stark warning: “Pretending that ageing and death will soon be ‘cured’ won’t stop anyone getting wrinkles, but it will distract them from the fact that our time is actually limited. It is only when we accept mortality that we realise how precious each day is.”

Guy Brown, Professor of Cellular Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, conducts research on cell physiology and pathology, essentially looking at how our cells work and how they go wrong in disease.

Professor Brown is author of the popular science book, The Living End: The Future of Death, Ageing and Immortality, in which he explores how the decline of acute death by infections, starvation, violence and heart attack has allowed people to reach extreme old age but ushered in disability, dementia and degenerative disease with profound consequences for the self and society.

Brown warned: “There is general misconception that ageing is natural rather than a product of our culture. Advanced ageing is very rare for animals in the wild and was rare for humans before civilisation, because they died before they aged significantly. The average human lifespan has doubled over the last 200 years and continues to increase at the startling rate of five hours per day because our society has invested heavily in delaying death.

“However, as a consequence of living longer we have more ageing and age-related disease.  For example, dementia used to be very rare, but now a third of the UK population over the age of 65 gets dementia before they die, and this is rapidly increasing entirely as a result of us living longer. Even in the absence of disease and disability, average quality of life over the age of 90 is very poor, and we need to ask whether we are enabling people to live too long.”

Brown continued: “Our current degenerative end to life is a result of our past and continuing focus on delaying death rather than delaying ageing and age-related disease. We urgently need to change this policy, and switch research away from causes of death towards causes of ageing and age-related disease.  The search for immortality was a dangerous delusion, but fighting ageing is an urgent necessity in the 21st century.”

Further events focusing on ageing during the Science Festival include a public talk by Professor Lorraine K. Tyler, a cognitive neuroscientist, on March 16 – Healthy ageing and the brain: the good news. Professor Tyler will be outlining the emerging positive view that ageing does not necessarily result in inevitable declines in neural and cognitive fitness. Normal healthy ageing involves widespread brain changes thought to impair everyday cognitive functions, including memory and attention. However, this view is undergoing a radical revision.

For the full programme of events, visit the Festival’s website at:

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