A series of recent articles and videos help to chronicle the state of the union in longevity research. For me, they all point to a key field of science for the most comprehensive answer of biological lifespan: Epigenetics.
In the New York Times, Pagan Kennedy writes a somewhat entertaining overview of the state of longevity research by chronicling the lifespan of the leading researchers in the field: Clive McCay, Ray Walford, Euelle Gibbons, Adelle Davis, and Jerome Rodale – all of whom lived into their 70’s but well less their expectations of becoming centenarians. Ms. Kennedy argues, I think correctly, that recent gains in human lifespan over the last century come from improvements to public health, e.g., reducing toxins in the air and disease in the water, not individual nutrition and diet.
But after we rid ourselves of the baseline disease in our public health system, and fortified foods are readily available to our population, how do we fight disease that ultimately ends our lifespan. This is where longevity researchers of the past leave us, and the frontiers of advanced science and technology begin to take us.
The CBS News story “Do you have Doomsday Genes?” provides an excellent compilation of stories that shed light on that frontier. As Ms. Kennedy points out, self-experimentation is all the rage as she cites the work of Anatoli Brouchkov eating ancient bacteria discovered under Arctic permafrost or Charles Brenner drinking milk laced with nicotinamide riboside to combat aging. But none of this science seems as far-fetched as the self-experimentation of researcher and bio-hacker Josiah Zayher who is editing his genomic code with CRISPR.
The technology of understanding our human biology is advancing far faster than we can comprehend or regulate. It appears that advanced technology is edging closer to solving for cures to specific ailments that tend to end our lifespan. Whether or not advanced technology will result in longer human lifespans is a greater debate – and the to a degree the point of Ms. Pagan’s article. In fact, work from leading longevity researchers, such as Dr. Steve Horvath, seems to suggest that our overall biological operating system has an instruction for ending our individual lifespan. Dr. Horvath research has proven that he is able to pick up on a signal or biological signature, by looking at chemical markers along our epigenome known as methylated DNA, that is a predictor of human lifespan. A recent presentation at Renaissance Bio, leading researchers provided a robust update on the science of epigenetics and its relationship to aging.
Researcher Josh Mitteldorf, who publishes the science blog Aging Matters adopts the theory of a fundamental limit to biological lifespan. At the molecular level, epigenetics now explains the mechanisms of how our biology is reacting and evolving to our environmental conditions. And as our molecular biology evolves and procreates, it appears that the necessity of the “you” becomes somewhat irrelevant. In fact “you” as the conscious human being attached to you molecular biology may be better seen as a mere byproduct – a temporary simulated perception of reality (see Musk). So, while researchers investigate and fight the continual onslaught of chemical and biological attacks to our biology (called aging), our underlying biology has long since moved on, and what remains is a battle we all lose in the end. And the old adage “it’s not one thing that kills you, it’s everything” stands.