There comes a time – and this must happen to everyone – when you suddenly notice you are old…or, at least, no longer young. And so it should be – we are born, grow old and die. But will it always be so?
As a population we are getting older – but not because we can beat ageing, because we are getting betterat it. When you consider the evolution of our species, ageing really is a new ‘problem’. For the vast majority of our existence on this planet, the vast majority of us died before 30. Developments in medicine and bioengineering mean we can now stave off disease and support our ailing frames in ways unimaginable only a few generations earlier. As such it is possible for members of our species to rack up some very impressive mileage.
Science can, and will, take on human ageing. To expect us not to is a mistake – the research is being done, and will continue.
But what next? Once we have eked out all we can from the natural constraints of our senescence – the next challenge will be to break through those constraints. And the science of biogerontology is in essence just that. Its ambitions range from a slight tinker with the biological processes underlying ageing in order to delay it, right through to immortality. And the gerontologists are both optimistic and unapologetic about their intentions. Professor Aubrey de Grey – notorious age botherer – suggests that ageing is nothing more than a “barbaric phenomenon that shouldn’t be tolerated in polite society”.
So is all this pure folly? I don’t think so – whilst at the moment we really know very little about why we age – science can, and will, take on human ageing. To expect us not to is a mistake – the research is being done, and will continue. I find this at once empowering and terrifying. Examining the hand we have been dealt by evolution and rejecting it – beating our biology at its own game and all the understanding that will entail – will be, without question, invigorating. Yet in doing so it is hard to see how we will not be forced to pay a hefty price – or at the very least be confronted with a set of daunting problems.
There are those in the gerontology community who will disagree here, but the effect of dramatically increasing life-span on population growth will potentially be disastrous. And if ageing is to become optional, this will surely be limited to the rich. There could come a point when we will look back with nostalgia to a time when the affluent merely paid cosmetic surgeons to have themselves skilfully sniped, stretched and folded into more youthful shapes, as now they pay to do away with the pesky ageing process altogether. Is that yet another stratification in society that we will be comfortable with? Will the have and the have-nots be defined by the wrinkles on their face?
Tough questions ahead then, but also some very exciting science.