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Living forever

Jeanne Calment, who died over 13 years ago in France, would have been all but forgotten to the wider world if it weren’t for her one amazing achievement. Calment, who met Van Gough when she was 13, lived until she was 122, making her the longest confirmed human life span in history. She joined a select group of what are referred to as supercentenarians – people who live until they are 110. So far, only around 1,300 individuals in the world have been confirmed as supercentenarians.

But that is a lot more than the numbers who have reached the age of 115, which amounts to just 2% of supercentenarians. And only two people have ever reached the age of 120 – Calment and Japanese Shigechiyo Izumi, although his life span is disputed. The number of supercentenarians might have risen sharply in recent years, but the overall rise in life expectancy, especially in developed economies has been slower to grow.

Switzerland – which has an average life expectancy of 82, longer than anywhere else in Europe, according to World Bank statistics – saw its average life expectancy rise by just 11 years in the last 50 years. Japan, which has the highest life expectancy in the world at just less than 83, has fared a little better; life expectancy has risen by 14 years over the same period.

What is even more interesting is that the biggest rises in life expectancy in the developed world were in the 25 years after 1960, not in the 24 years after 1985. Indeed, life expectancy in the US as measured by the World Bank rose by 7% between 1960 and 1985, whereas between 1985 and 2009 the rise was only 5%.

But things might be about to change radically, argue some prominent experts in the field of gerontology, the study of the social, psychological and biological parts of aging. Currently, the consensus among gerontologist experts is that humans have a theoretical maximum lifespan of 125 years, but health declines long before than.

One of the most prominent, if not controversial, exponents of life extension is the Cambridge-based biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. De Grey reckons that within 30 years we will have the ability to live longer – much longer.

“Progress in tissue-repair will be such that significant increases in life expectancy will be possible and within that time period further developments in tissue-repair will be made enabling us to live potentially forever,” says de Grey. He says tissue repair will be possible through the development of what he calls Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, or SENS.

SENS, according to de Grey, has identified seven types of molecular and cellular damage caused by metabolic processes. De Grey says SENS is becoming prominent in the science of life extension. “The feasibility of SENS, i.e. of applying broad-based regenerative medicine to the problems of aging in the future, is gaining wider acceptance among scientists, largely because of advances in stem cell research and tissue engineering.”
Nevertheless, de Grey has been accused of pseudo science by some prominent scientists, most notably in a series of articles published in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s scientific journal Technology Review. But de Grey doesn’t appear too concerned about the criticism.

“What evidence did the Wright brothers have that their plane would fly?” Whatever the outcome of the debate around de Grey’s ideas, the science of life extension is growing and breakthroughs might be only a few years away. Companies like Sierra Sciences, a biotech company founded by William Andrews with the goal of preventing and eventually reversing biological aging, is probably one of the groups close to a breakthrough.

In September, Sierra Sciences, working with a number of other life extension and cancer specialist groups like the Geron Corporation, TA Science and the Spanish National Cancer Research Center, announced some interesting news. They had discovered the first compound that activates the enzyme telomerase in the human body – a critical factor in developing the technology necessary to reverse the aging process, according to the group.

Andrews says the discovery of the enzyme known as TA-65 is seminal. “We are on the cusp of curing aging,” he says. “TA-65 is going to go down in history as the first supplement you can take that doesn’t merely extend your life a few years by improving your health, but actually affects the underlying mechanisms of aging.”

Andrews reckons that TA-65 is just the first of a whole new family of therapies that could help us reverse the aging process. Others are concentrating more on gene therapies like the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Molecular Biology, connected to Harvard University, which recently made some revolutionary findings on specific types of genetic mutation. The lead scientists involved in the research – Sean Curran and Gary Ruykun – say that further developments in the science of genetic mutation could help to device therapies to safeguard against age-related pathologies. The research will be published in the science journal Nature later this year.

Indeed, there are so many developments in this field that a website dedicated to life extension was set up to monitor them all. Called immortalhumans.com, the site covers most of the scientific developments in the quest for life extension. But it also cites studies on healthy lifestyles that can help without medical intervention.

Interestingly, lifestyle information not science still dominates the website. And in the absence of a big scientific breakthrough in gerontology, lifestyle decisions would appear to be the only factors that currently really can make a difference to life spans. Although for the longest living person on record living a healthy lifestyle might not have been the elixir to her extraordinary long life. Calment smoked from the age of 26, never took regular exercise and lived on her own for much of her life. Though she did take up fencing at the age of 85.

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