My final first week. I am over halfway through my degree, and the time I have left is less than the time I have already spent here. This scares the hell out of me. It is not the relative imminence of the real world that fazes me, but the fact I have no idea where the last two years went. In fact I have no idea where the last twenty years went – the two decades I’ve spent on this planet seem to have passed in a clichéd blink of an eye. This also scares me.
It is possible that this is down to my sense of time changing as I’ve grown, increasing all the time owing to a decreasing number of new experiences in day to day life compared to my early years. If you have ever seen a young child out for a walk you my have noticed the curiosity and inquisition they seem to emanate upon seeing anything, from an aeroplane to a puddle. Of course these revelations soon become mundane as they become routine, even in childhood; you may not remember every one of your 1200 days of primary school but I bet you remember the first. Similarly I don’t recall every lecture I have attended since October ’06 (hell, I don’t remember the one this morning) but I think I shall always remember the one I attended in just my underwear.
There may be more to memory than just notable events. An American university recently carried out a study into the effects between age and the type of memories we lock away in our brain. A panel of volunteers of varying ages were individually shown a sequence of pictures depicting a variety of scenes from a beautiful sunrise to a bloodied assault victim before asked to recall as many of the images as they could. The researchers found the younger subjects were able to recollect a wide variety of the pictures across the positive to negative scale, whilst the older generation remembered mainly the optimistic scenes – the mother and child, galloping horse etc. It was suggested this is the result of a subconscious awareness of an encroaching sense of mortality in the older subjects – if we feel we have less time to live are we more likely to hang on to only positive memories? This selective memory may explain why many pensioners can reminisce about the eternal hot summers of their youth (sit an OAP down for a minute and the conversation will soon swing round to the subject I assure you), when in fact 15 of the 16 hottest years on record have occurred since 1980.
I am digressing slightly from my main problem, which was my life apparently slipping through my fingers, even right now as I write this article. I’ve spent the last 3 hours trying to neatly link a paragraph on memory to one on the idea of living for a millennia. Sadly I failed miserably.
But what if we could live for several centuries? Our collective life expectancy has been steadily increasing for over 170 years and more people than ever are making it to a hundred. Whilst medical advances and better standards of living could both be responsible for our increasing years the real key to life could lie in our genes.
The reason we age is down to an accumulation of damage to our cells that eventually causes them to change the way they behave or cease to reproduce. Wrinkles, for example, are the result of the ‘wrong’ proteins being made within our skin – causing our skin structure to falter. Similarly grey hair is caused by our melanocytes stem cells no longer producing the pigments that give our hair colour. These mutations are occurring all over our body and as we reach old-age the combined damage becomes too much.
Ironically the source of this life altering damage is at the very core of what keeps us going. The mitochondria of our cells generate the majority of our energy through a series of reactions within the cell itself – electrons are passed between molecules with each pass producing energy. Unfortunately the reactions do not always behave and a by product of a faulty electron pass is a free radical; a single electron that is very reactive. The free radicals warp the DNA within the cell and eventually kill it, which generally leads to our demise over time.
However, there could be a way to reverse all of this cell damage and allow our body to stay active for hundreds of years. Dr Aubrey De Gray, a geneticist from Cambridge (and owner of some fine facial hair), claims it is simply a matter of time before the existing genetic technologies are combined to give the answer to a thousand year life time.
Author of “Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Ageing” (if you want to find out more) and advocate of the Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) that would make this possible. SENS would work by periodically repairing any age-related tissue damage, and so, in effect, indefinitely extending the human lifespan. De Gray has so far identified seven causes of ageing damage and gives potential treatment schemes.
Here’s an example: lysoSENS, the cure for intracellular junk. Cells in the human body are constantly breaking down proteins which are no longer useful or could be harmful. This all sounds fine, but there are some molecules which cannot be digested naturally like this and these just accumulate. Several neurodegenarative diseases, such as Alzheimers, are associated with this problem. The addition of new enzymes to the lysosome, dubbed the cell’s natural digestion organ, could remove this intracellular junk. Most importantly, if De Gray is right then the first person to live to a thousand could be sixty already.
Would we really want to live for a thousand years? Could we bear the whips and scorns of time for so long? The flood of anti-ageing products in Boots suggests we yearn for more time on the planet, or perhaps just more time looking younger. Personally I think the Miss Alabama of 1995 summarises the ‘immortality’ debate nicely: “I would not live forever, because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever.”