The coming longevity revolution?

October 2, 2000

Society is embarking upon the next longevity revolution--one built on advances in genetics and pharmaceuticals, not the intake of antioxidants and hormones, according to S. Jay Olshansky, PhD, an expert who is working with colleagues on a biodemographic paradigm of mortality.

Olshansky, a senior research scientist at the Center on Aging/National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and lead author of the forthcoming book, The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging, shared his views during the American Medical Association's Science Reporters Conference in Atlanta, on October 2, 2000.

"Through the centuries, there have been countless efforts to modify or reverse the aging process. None of them ever worked, and all the people who have subscribed to the various anti-aging elixirs died at roughly the same ages as almost everyone else. Even today, there are people who claim that hormones, antioxidants, and other potions can slow or reverse the aging process, but so far, there is no evidence that human longevity would be influenced by these substances. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation about what influences longevity. Much of it is designed to make a profit for the people selling it," Olshansky said.

Society has already experienced one longevity revolution, Olshansky said. "That was the successes gained against infectious and parasitic diseases that killed people early in life." He said the next longevity revolution will happen through advances in the biomedical sciences, such as genetics and molecular biology, and it will happen during the lifetime of many people living today.

"Among the numerous advances in the biomedical sciences that will influence human aging, I think we will see remarkable developments in stem cell research that will permit us to create designer organs, tailored to the individual. Obviously, what we are learning in genetics will also have a tremendous impact on individual diseases. Although the advances we'll see may not yield dramatic increases in longevity like those observed during the 20th century when society successfully tackled infectious and parasitic diseases, it will probably produce some impressive gains against age-related diseases and disorders."

Olshansky said the future is both encouraging and frightening. "It's encouraging because we may eventually learn how to slow the aging process through such methods as genetic engineering. But there is much to be learned about genetics, and I fear we may rush too fast. For example, if you identify the genes that influence late-onset disorders like heart disease or cancer, the inclination is to eliminate those genes. And while we may feel certain that replacing or modifying these genes will influence those diseases, there may be other possible health consequences. It's a new frontier. And we don't know what those consequences are - whether they will produce an extension of youth or a prolongation of old age."

"Also, there are significant bioethical considerations. As we acquire the ability to manipulate the genome, we become the driving force of evolution. That has never happened before. Natural selection has always been the force of evolution. I suspect there will eventually be an effort to have everyone provide blood samples and tissue samples to have their genome sequenced. And they will know precisely what kinds of genes they carry that make them susceptible to certain diseases. On the one hand, that's very useful information. On the other hand, if that kind of information ever reaches insurance companies or employers, we will have created a new and extremely dangerous form of discrimination," he says.

In spite of the clear evidence that the biomedical sciences will pave the next longevity revolution, Olshansky says there are people who are looking elsewhere for the answers.

"There are three major legends associated with longevity that still persist in today's world. One is the Antediluvian Legend - a belief that there was a previous time-period during which people lived very long lives, such as during Biblical times, and that if we would simply re-adopt the lifestyle of those people, we could restore the much higher life expectancies of our ancestors. The second legend is referred to as the Hyperborean Legend, which proposes there are certain places where people live extremely long lives, like the Hunzas of Kashmir, for instance. The third legend is the Fountain Legend, which maintains that the ingestion of some vitamin, mineral hormone, elixir, or special waters will combat aging and rejuvenate the body. These legends have either been proven false, or there is no scientific evidence to support them."

In the end, however, Olshansky said people's bodies are not much different from other mechanical devices.

"An Indy 500 race car is engineered to go a certain distance, but if you keep running the car beyond the end of the race, things start to fall apart. They weren't engineered to fail. They just weren't engineered for extended operation. And it's the same thing with humans. We weren't engineered for extended operation. Now, we are operating these living machines beyond the end of their warranty period, and we are seeing things go wrong that you wouldn't normally have the opportunity to see."

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