Everybody has a different approach to aging. Some people accept it as a normal course of life whilst others fight against it, trying to delay it for as long as possible. No matter how hard you fight though, time will take its toll. Muscles will deteriorate, wrinkles will appear and let’s not get started on the lack of memory. But what’s the alternative? Immortality is not possible as yet which is why some people have turned to cryonics – but what if there were a way to delay the aging process?
This is where Aubrey de Grey comes in. He is a world-renowned scientist fighting to stop aging altogether. Together with his research assistant, Michael Rae, they have worked together to find the best practices to end aging.
In this book summary readers will discover:
- The complexities of trying to prevent aging
- Mitochondrial mutation, free radicals and leftover junk
- Putting a stop to cell mutation and cancer
- AGEs and Zombie cells
- Current research into aging
Key lesson one: The complexities of trying to prevent aging
Aging is inevitable. We have gotten better at delaying it over the years but there’s definitely no getting rid of it altogether. Some people accept it as something we do not have control over and others would do anything to find an elixir of youth. Then there are those who are against ending aging as that would mean we would live longer. The earth is struggling with overpopulation as it is, can you imagine if we lived longer? Would the age we retire change? How much would we have to save up for retirement in any case? Living longer might only benefit those who can afford it.
But, if aging is considered the same as any other disease, could it be possible to find a cure? Aubrey de Grey definitely believes it is possible and has developed a program called Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence or SENS. This program aims to stop aging although it is still in its early stages. In order to perfect it, funding is needed for research and technology development – just like any other research project.
However, in the meantime, we can focus on how to prevent aging by trying to avoid the bodily damage that causes aging. The first step for prevention is to identify the cause of the problem. With aging, however, there is no singular cause but, rather a multitude of factors that contribute to the process. This means that prevention is complicated. So what is suggested is repair. To understand the concept of repair, consider someone who is 40 years old. If prevention were a possibility you could probably look to prevent aging by say 50 per cent. In this case, if the 40-year-old was expected to live to 80, they could now live another 40 years and reach 120 years. This increases their total lifespan by 33 per cent. If we had to repair the damage of the 40-year-old by 50 per cent, by the time they reached 80 years of age, they would only have the accumulated damage of a 50-year-old. In this way, you could possibly double the person’s lifespan from 80 years to 160 years.
So, if prevention is uncertain due to multiple causes, repair seems to be a pretty good, if not better alternative.
Key lesson two: Mitochondrial mutation, free radicals and leftover junk
Mitochondria have an important part in the evolution of all living organisms. They are better known as the power plants of the cell as they produce the energy needed for us to live. As a byproduct of this energy production, however, free radicals are produced.
Free radicals are bad for human health and can also be a result of pollutants that you are exposed to or toxins that may come from your diet. Most free radicals though are produced in our very own cells. They are similar to oxygen molecules but they lack an electron making them unstable and highly reactive. If they are to stabilise, they need to obtain another electron. They do this by ‘stealing’ an electron from the nearest stable molecule. This leads to a chain reaction in the cell which is ultimately harmful as it causes mutations and damage to mitochondrial DNA. This damage is a major contributor to aging. There have been many suggestions as to how to stop this damage from occurring. One which has gained much popularity is called allotopic expression which is a form of gene therapy. The proposed method would involve keeping a backup of our mitochondrial DNA in the protective nucleus of our cells protecting it from free radicals.
Free radicals are not the only byproducts of cellular processes. Another waste product or junk floating around our cells is called lipofuscin is usually recycled via lysosomes. As much as the lysosomes recycle the lipofuscin, it is difficult for them to remove all of it. The lipofuscin accumulates in the cells and causes aging and arteriosclerosis, a disease characterized by the buildup of plaque in the arteries. One proposed method to get rid of lipofuscin in our cells is the introduction of microbes into the body. The idea came about as microbes in the soil are responsible for breaking down the lipofuscin still present in bodies after death and burial. There is still a lot of work to be done before this becomes a reality though.
Amyloids is also another junk product present outside the cells. Amyloids are made up of mostly damaged proteins. When amyloids collect in cells surrounding the brain it causes Alzheimer’s disease. There is some evidence that the brain’s immune system works to eradicate amyloids but the rate at which it does so is very slow. The proposed method to increase this response is vaccination. A vaccination would allow this process to happen faster and would effectively slow down aging in the brain.
Key lesson three: Putting a stop to cell mutation and cancer
Another cause of aging is the loss of cells. It seems straightforward that producing new cells would fix this and there is a way this can happen. However, it has been met with resistance due to questions of morality and politics. Embryonic stem cells are the only cells that can be used to produce new cells in the body. Adult stem cells cannot do this. The moral dilemma comes from embryonic stem cells only being present in early-stage embryos.
It is not only the loss of cells but also the mutation of DNA within these cells that occur with age. As much as DNA is tucked into the nucleus of the cell, it can still be damaged by free radicals, UV rays and toxins. If this damaged DNA is replicated when cells divide, the damage will spread to other cells. This is how cancer starts and spreads. To combat this, the proposed method is to get rid of the telomerase gene. As cancer is basically the uncontrolled replication of dangerous cells, the elimination of the telomerase gene would disrupt cell replication by preventing the lengthening of the protective cap on the end of chromosomes. This would cause harmful cells to die off after a few divisions.
The obvious problem with getting rid of the telomerase gene is that all cells would suffer the same fate. But, circling back to stem cell therapy, if it were allowed, stem cell therapy could produce new cells to compensate for those lost.
Key lesson four: AGEs and Zombie cells
Advanced glycation endproducts or AGEs are produced when sugars and other substances bind to proteins in our bodies. The accumulation of AGEs in your cells negatively impacts the way in which they function and can lead to disease and death. Research has shown that there is no way to prevent this accumulation but de Grey thinks that a drug can be used to clear it out. This is based on animal trials using a drug called alagebrium. As much as it yielded positive results on animals, in humans, the negative side effects outweighed the benefits. So, the hope is that similar drugs could be created in future.
As we get older we also collect zombie cells. These are cells that are resistant to death. Therefore even when they become dysfunctional, they continue to move around and compromise surrounding cells. In doing so, they contribute to aging. Preventing zombie cells has been achieved in laboratory trials by keeping them alive. However, the method used has a risk of causing cancer. Another proposed method is to use gene therapy and produce a suicide gene that will kill the zombie cells. This has yet to be tested though.
Key lesson five: Current research into aging
As much as there are proposed methodologies to end aging, the actual work being done is very little. There are many implications of research into aging which prevents research from going further.
To convince the powers that be of the potential these theories have, de Grey has decided to do something he calls robust mouse rejuvenation or RMR. He wants to use these techniques on 2-year-old mice to prove that they will work by increasing their lifespan from 3 to 5 years. By using mice that are already 2 years old, they would already have some damage and aging.
Research into aging sufferers many setbacks due to its sometimes risky approaches. For example, experiments in gene therapy in 1999 resulted in the death of a teenager from anaphylactic shock. This caused gene therapy trials to be suspended for over a year. These delays, together with moral questioning and lengthy drug registrations, all prevent the momentum needed for research into aging.
De Grey hopes that RMR will help expedite research and get the drugs needed to continue with human trials. We have already made great headway and this only takes us one step closer to ending aging.
The key takeaway from Ending Aging is:
Everyone gets older, aging and death are unavoidable but, what if it could be delayed? Aging is caused by a multitude of factors that make finding a cure or preventing it complicated. However, by attempting to repair the damage in our bodies that contribute to aging, there is a possibility to delay aging. The methods proposed are yet to be tested and are somewhat controversial but with perseverance, there is a possibility that more robust trials will begin.
How can I implement the lessons learned in Ending Aging:
Free radicals are not only a byproduct of cell processes, they can also come from environmental exposure to pollutants and toxins from your diet. To minimise free radicals in your body, ensure that you maintain a healthy lifestyle. This includes diet and exercise which will help decrease the number of free radicals in your system which contribute to aging.