I want to live longer and help others do the same. I assumed the most effective way to do that is by understanding the science of aging and then engineering solutions to extend human lifespan. That is why I became a biomedical researcher and over the past several years I have pursued this goal almost single-mindedly.
Calorie restriction is not the first such “promising” route that
eventually did not live up to the promise, and it will not be the last.
Antioxidants showed promise in holding back diseases caused by aging,
but now we know that antioxidant supplements are more likely to shorten
Earlier in May, researchers showed that reducing a protein called
NF-kB in mouse brains modestly improved their lifespan. I am not holding
out for this result either. Before too long, I’m sure there will be
reports of severe side effects of manipulating levels of NF-kB.
TO LIVE LONGER, TAKE IT EASY
Looking at the data I have come to the conclusion that “doing
nothing” may be the best option in most cases. This may not be as
pessimistic as it sounds and it is definitely not to say that research
in fighting aging must not be carried out.
When I say “do nothing”, I am assuming that you do not smoke or drink
too much alcohol, and have access to medical care in case of injury.
Such measures are bound to increase your lifespan.
But currently, not intervening in the aging process is more likely to
help you live longer than trying any of the methods I’ve mentioned, not
by a few months but by many years. Trying any of those interventions
may actually cause harm, and will do so for the foreseeable future.
LESSON ABOUT AGING FROM THE PAST
The chart above shows the survival rates – the percentage of the
population that lives to a certain age – for men in England and Wales
from 1860 to 2010.
In the 1860s, more than 20% of children died at birth or soon after.
On average, men’s health started to decline around the age of 30, and
only about 20% of the population survived for more than 70 years.
By 1910, child mortality decreased, thanks to improvements in hygiene
and better medical care. This meant more men lived past the age of 50.
Circle A shows this reduction in childhood mortality between 1860 and
2010. But, as can be seen from Circle D, the gain towards the end was
not significant. This is because only 30% of males passed the age of 70.
Fifty years later, after the discovery of penicillin and invention of
more vaccines, 90% of English and Welsh men lived until 50, and more
than half survived to 70. Arrow B marks this trend.
Today almost 80% of men live to the age of 70. Four times as many men reach 70 now than in 1860.
What accounts for the change? Between 1860 and 1960, the significant
increase in survival rate was due to medical intervention. Since 1960,
the survival curve has improved mainly due to reduction in smoking.
This trend is similar in many rich countries, including the US. Druin
Burch, a physician and writer, says in his book Taking the Medicine,
that eliminating smoking would provide more benefits than being able to
cure people of every possible type of cancer.
Many experts believe that human lifespan might actually have an upper
limit of 125 years. The average may not increase much beyond 90. If we
are to agree with them, this leaves little room for improvement.
But we have never concentrated on maximizing human lifespan before.
Most people believe human lifespan is finite, so all drugs being
manufactured today are targeted towards certain age-related diseases
such as diabetes and hypertension. They are not designed to extend human
If this bleak outlook is indeed true, we should not practice naive
interventionism because it is unlikely to help. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb
describes in his book Antifragile, naive interventionism occurs when we
try to fix a single thing, but end up disturbing a complex system.
In case of extending human lifespan, those naive interventions would
include calorie restriction, antioxidant supplements or manipulating the
protein NF-kB, as mentioned earlier. They also include the current
obsession with replacing fat in foods with sugar, the health benefits of
drinking red wine, or the use of surgery or supplements to “fight”
aging. This latter industry has grown in the past decade from being
non-existent to an estimated worth of $88 billion today.
If intervening in the aging process with current biomedical science
has any positive effect at all, it will be far too small to worry about.
It’s far more likely to harm us.
That is why I have decided to do nothing and follow a simple rule:
unless I meet with an accident, or suffer from a terminal disease, I
will not add anything to my life with the explicit purpose of extending
it. To do anything else would most likely do more harm than good.