Blog: Do You Want to Live Forever?

28 March 2013 Written by  Lisa Davis
Blog: Do You Want to Live Forever? Dianne Harris, Wellcome Images

The Mummies of the World exhibit, on display at The Leonardo museum in Salt Lake City until May 27, 2013, inspired the program, “Do You Want to Live Forever?” This blog contains excerpts from the presentation, which probes some far-out theories that humans, through advances in technology and biology, will eventually figure out how to live longer…a lot longer.

Leonardo publicist Lisa Davis mediated the discussion with three panelists, neuroscientist Robert Marc, human geneticist Richard Cawthon, and medical ethicist Jeffrey Botkin, all professors at the University of Utah.


Egyptians are a well-known culture for their focus on immortality. The ancient Egyptians believed that when someone died, their soul left their body. It was then returned and reunited with the body after it had been buried.

But there was one condition. The soul needed to be able to find and recognize the body. This is why Egyptians went to such lengths to preserve their dead. They believed they would possess their body forever. In the over 3,000 years they engaged in this practice, Egyptians created at least 17 million mummies.

Throughout history, we find numerous stories of humans seeking after eternal youth and being taken forth into an immortal being through magic, divine intervention, and sometimes trickery.

Rather than waiting until they are dead, today some scientists, technologists and multibillionaires are investing tremendous resources in enhancing lifespan, and are making some pretty crazy predictions that sound like they come straight out of the most fantastic science fiction movies.

One of these prognosticators is Ray Kurzweil. Forbes calls him “The ultimate thinking machine”. He holds multiple patents for multiple inventions. Among other honors, he has received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the U.S. highest honor in technology. Earlier this year he joined Google as the company’s director of engineering.

He started predicting the future of technology and innovation 25 years ago, and by some estimates his accuracy rate is at 86%. His predictions have more recently turned towards the realm of technology and life extension. He believes that by the late 2020s we will have millions of nanobots swarming around in our bodies. They will provide us with ideal levels of nutrition and clean out all the bad stuff we put in them. By 2030, he says these nanobots will be able to eradicate all disease. Somewhere around the end of the 21st century, he believes that we’ll evolve into software-based beings who will upload our brains to the cloud, or whatever we’ll call it then.

A futurist who thinks we can extend lifespan by manipulating biology rather than technology, is Aubrey de Grey. In 1999 he published the book, The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging. In it he puts forth the theory that the cumulative damage to mitochondrial DNA [mitochondria is an organelle that generates cellular energy] is the likely cause of senescence [the process of deteriorating with age], and that by limiting or reversing the damage, we can extend lifespan significantly. On the basis of the information in that book alone, de Gray was awarded a Ph.D. by Cambridge University in 2000.

de Grey argues that the fundamental knowledge to develop treatments to slow and even stop the aging process already exist. He predicts that the first humans who will live to 1,000 years old are already among us.

LISA DAVIS: What is your take on these predictions?

ROBERT MARC: One of the fundamental errors that’s being made culturally, as well as scientifically, is believing the metaphor that the brain is a computer. Your brain doesn’t work digitally.

Most importantly, these people [futurists Kurzweil, Dmitry Itzkov, and Ian Pearson] have underestimated the amazing complexity that comprises a single brain. If you solve for the complexity of networks the human brain can produce, that number is 10300,000. How big is that? The number of atoms in the observable universe is 108. There is no way that all the matter in the universe can be used to model the complexity of the human brain in terms of its computational abilities.

LISA DAVIS: What is the fundamental difference between the kind of scientists these futurists are and the kind you are?

ROBERT MARC: There are three kinds of neuroscientists: wet, dry, and vaporware. My laboratory is pretty wet, we do biological neuroscience. We work with brains and nervous systems and try to map pathways. Computational neuroscience tries to model some of those pathways, too. But I would argue that there’s no point in modeling stuff until you have the real networks. There’s a lot of vaporware. It seems that anyone who has a brain believes they can comment on brain function.

Ray Kerzweil has made great contributions to society. He is a great electrical engineer, but a bad neuroscientist. The Peter Principle says everybody rises to the level of their incompetence, and most of these guys have gotten there.

LISA DAVIS: Tell us where some of the promising research is happening.

RICHARD CAWTHON: What’s exciting is that laboratories have directly intervened in the mouse and turned on the enzyme that maintains telomeres [structures at the end of chromosomes involved in stabilizing DNA], telomerase. First, they activated telomerase so that it was on at higher levels than normal in all the tissues of the mouse, for the lifetime of the mouse. Some of the mice lived longer, and other mice actually got cancer early and died.

The same lab made additional mice, where they turned on higher than normal levels of telomerase and also tumor suppressor genes that protect against cancer. Those mice live 30-40% longer without the higher cancer mortality rate. That’s the most persuasive evidence that telomeres have a causal effect on how long an animal will live.

There are people taking telomerase activators. The big question is, does it help them stay healthy longer, and live longer? Or are they going to become ill with higher rates of cancer?

LISA DAVIS: This stuff is already on the market?

RICHARD CAWTHON: It’s called TA65. It’s very expensive. It costs $7.30 per pill.

LISA DAVIS: Why is exercise healthy for us?

RICHARD CAWTHON: Exercise has been shown in rodents to increase the average lifespan, and how long the animal stays healthy. It’s also known that what exercise does is boost the number of mitochondria per cell in many tissues. It might help mitochondrial function, and perhaps stimulate the clearing out of damaged mitochondria, replacing them with healthy mitochondria.

LISA DAVIS: Of the futurists presented, all three panelists were most confident in de Gray’s predictions. Why?

ROBERT MARC: We’ve come to this very uncomfortable understanding that as we age, it’s us against our immune system’s inflammatory response. A lot of things that turn on that inflammatory response are things that accumulate over time.

What we’re trying to do is stop the sign posts of inflammation. Stop the glycation events. Stop the oxidative damage that ends up killing cells. Chemically we kind of know how to do that, but strategically we don’t know how to implement those interventions safely.

We got really excited about antioxidants a few years ago, and thought, “Wow, we’ll pump vitamin E into everyone.” Vitamin E increases your risk for cancer, accelerates macular degeneration. Vitamin E did everything wrong.

We don’t know as much about the organic chemistry and molecular biology of these processes as we thought we did. But we can learn more, and might be able to get there.

LISA DAVIS: de Gray supposes it is our responsibility to do the research, offer the potential for enhancing lifespan, and trust that future generations will figure out any gray areas. What do you think?

RICHARD CAWTHON: The goal of medicine is to try to keep people healthy for as long as possible. One of the arguments is that we lose all the wisdom and experience of various people because they get old and die. If they were to live much longer, then perhaps some of the major problems we have failed to solve throughout civilization, like war, poverty, and crime, would be solved. If you have enough smart people staying alive and thinking about it, and working together to solve these things, you would be able to solve them.

And if you could keep people as healthy as they were at age 30, there would be a huge drop in the cost of health care.

JEFFREY BOTKIN: Let’s imagine I can have my life extended for an extra 30 or 40 years. What if that life extension isn’t shared by my family? How would it be for our loved ones to grow old and die, and our kids to age past us?

The other issues are the profound justice issues. If we get this technology, how are we going to decide who is going to get it? It’s likely to be affordable only by the upper economic echelons of society. Think of the potential instability to society if we get that sort of technology that is so wanted by so many people, being controlled by a relative few.

Then let’s imagine I stay in my position another 40 years. The folks behind me who want my job are waiting for me to step off the treadmill. I think the broader social impacts of delaying senescence means there would be a huge transfer of resources from younger people to older people, who would be living that much longer.

FROM THE AUDIENCE: Do you guys want to live forever?

RICHARD CAWTHON: I think it’s a preposterous question because no one will ever live forever. Using the word “immortal” or “living forever” is misleading.

FROM THE AUDIENCE: Have any of you taken steps to increase the level of your life, or the length of your life?

ROBERT MARC: Quality of life is highly dependent on preventing cognitive impairment. Wear a helmet. Second in the game is reducing the risk of heart disease. The things that we talk about in terms of improving quality of life, length of life are the things we talk about epidemiologically: heart disease, cancer, diabetes. I’m taking omega-3 fish oil just like all the cardiologists tell me to, to try and stave off inflammation, which is a big enemy for stroke and heart disease. Sleep is another issue. The quality and duration of sleep is a major contributor to a lot of these processes.

JEFFREY BOTKIN: A baby aspirin and I do wear my seatbelt. Another significant factor is that I’ve got a job and a healthy income. Social class ends up being a significant predictor of longevity. There are so many complicated factors that are part of our lives that have to do with how long we live.

RICHARD CAWTHON: Aspirin has been shown to reduce mortality due to heart disease, stroke and various cancers. It’s likely that taking aspirin will extend your life, but first discuss it with your family physician.

Compiled and edited by Julie Kiefer

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