25 July 2018
By Ori Eyal , on behalf of Cuffelinks
My thesis is that medical technology will not just cure the various illnesses of aging, but it will stop and then reverse aging itself. While our technological progress will be punctuated and irregular, each advance will incrementally extend our human lifespan. For most of us, these advances should be sufficient, each time, to increase lifespan long enough to allow time for the next advance, such that our healthy lifespan should be, effectively, infinite (but let’s call it 1,000 years).
While this may be a startling claim, I hope to show that it is not at all unreasonable and ultimately inevitable.
We start with the claim that the human body is just a machine. Indeed, an extraordinarily complex one, but at the end of the day, a machine that is subject to the same universal laws of physics, mechanics, chemistry and biochemistry. In other words, there is nothing mystical or magical about how the human body works.
Given sufficient technology, knowledge, time and resources, there is nothing, in principle, that will prevent us from maintaining the human body in the same way that we can maintain other machines. And in the same way that any other machine, given the right care and replacement parts, can be maintained forever, so can our human bodies.
When viewed in this way, we can understand medicine as simply a form of highly complex engineering applied to the human body. Once we have mastered the relevant technologies and techniques, the challenges will not be insurmountable.
Indeed, medicine is rapidly transforming into information science. This is a process which started with gene sequencing and has moved on to new technologies like iPS cells and CRISPR – where we are increasingly mastering our ability to synthesize the tools and materials we need. Moreover, as more and more of medicine becomes information science, it will benefit from exponential, rather than linear, progress.
The best way to understand aging is to consider it a gradual accumulation of different types of damage in the body.
In order to understand the concept of accumulated damage, let us use the analogy of a laptop computer. When it is new, the hard drive is mostly empty, it has few programs installed and runs rapidly and faultlessly. But over time, the hard drive gets filled up and fragmented, more and more software gets activated on startup, malware and spyware creep in, the registry gets cluttered, etc. Moreover, dust enters the casing, the cooling fan slows down and the springs in the keyboard get worn out.
These are all forms of ‘accumulated damage’ which result in the laptop becoming slow and faulty. After accumulating all this damage, we can say that the laptop has ‘aged’. Many aspects of the laptops functionality degrade until it succumbs to old age (too much accumulated damage) and dies.
When it comes to a laptop, we understand how to rejuvenate it: we can de-fragment, or reformat the hard- drive, or even replace it. We can add and replace memory and faulty keys – or even the whole keyboard. We can reinstall the operating system from scratch and remove unneeded software. We can use an anti-virus program to remove malware. And we can even replace and upgrade the CPU and/or the motherboard. In doing so, we can stop and even reverse the aging of the laptop, and can, in principle, keep it running forever.
Similarly, the illnesses of aging are either caused by, or are a direct manifestation of damage accumulated in the human body. For example: Heart disease is mostly caused by the accumulation of plaque in the arteries. If we were able to remove that plaque, we would largely remove heart disease. Similarly, Alzheimers is believed to be mostly the result of accumulated junk in and between brain cells as well as the loss of neurons. All of these forms of accumulated damage are, in principle, reversible.
Aubrey de Grey and others have already identified the seven types of accumulated damage in the human body that we call ‘aging’. He has also identified plausible methods by which medical science, or medical engineering will be able to stop and reverse all of these seven types of accumulated damage. Researchers are already working on methods and cures to stop and reverse all these.
Strategies to combat aging
Once we understand that aging is essentially the accumulation of damage at the organ, cellular and molecular level within our bodies, four interconnected strategies become apparent to combat aging:
- Slowing down the accumulation of damage in the body
- Reducing, delaying or bypassing the effects of accumulated damage in the body
- Repairing the accumulated damage in the body
- Replacing body parts that have accumulated too much damage
All four strategies are already being pursued in parallel. Because they are interconnected, it is likely that success and progress on any of the four strategies will help inform and promote progress on the other three strategies. From my reading and analysis, I believe that only strategy 3 will lead to an indefinitely long healthy lifespan.
Objections to this thesis
- New medical developments will be available only for the super-rich.
Like all new technologies, new medical solutions will rapidly filter down from the rich to the middle class to the poor as economies of scale reduce costs.
- Progress may take much longer than we expect.
Initially, progress may well be slower than we expect and our lives might end before sufficient progress is achieved, but the predictions above have significant margin of safety.
- Medicine is becoming an information/engineering science subject to exponential progress.
- We are making progress on other technologies which will also help, including nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, artificial organs and others.
- Incremental progress will increase lifespan, buying more time for more progress.
- Extending life span beyond 120 and reversing aging may be an ‘all or nothing’ endeavour.
Making partial progress may be of limited value since it just means something else will kill us soon after. For example, it has been argued that curing cancer would only add about three years to the average human lifespan as those that would have died from cancer end up dying from some other age related illness soon after.
- We are already working on methods to stop and revere all seven types of accumulated damage and curing all age-related diseases.
- At age 120, most humans would suffer from terminal cancer, terminal Alzheimer’s, terminal diabetes, terminal heart disease, etc all at the same time. Therefore, breaking beyond the 120 age limit may indeed be all-or-nothing. However, extending healthy lifespan up to 120 is probably not all-or-nothing with partial progress having meaningful life extending impact.
- Age 120 is still a long time away, thus there should be sufficient time to make progress on all Partial and even limited progress on all fronts will buy us more time to make further progress.
- Radically extending lifespan will cause severe problems.
Such problems may include overpopulation, social unrest, mass unemployment, pollution and water shortage.
- As life expectancy increases, birth rates will rapidly decline.
- We are well on the way to solving energy, water, pollution, food and other problems via advanced technology. Once these issues are solved, overpopulation will no longer be a problem.
Over the next few decades, medical science (increasingly called medical engineering) will provide ways to both stop and reverse the accumulation of damage in the human body that we call aging. As a result, life expectancies will increase rapidly until reaching the tipping point where life expectancy increases by more than one year every year at which point death due to aging becomes improbable.
If we exclude horrific dystopian futures such as a global nuclear war, or similar overwhelming disasters, I see no credible future scenario where an essentially infinite healthy lifespan for humans does not happen. The only significant uncertainty from my perspective is timing.