On dying after your time

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SummaryRegardless of what science makes possible in anti-ageing, death must have its day

This fall, Google announced that it would venture into territory far removed from Internet search. Through a new company, Calico, it will be “tackling” the “challenge” of ageing.

The announcement, though, was vague about what exactly the challenge is and how exactly Google means to tackle it. Calico may, with the aid of Big Data, simply intensify present efforts to treat the usual chronic diseases that afflict the elderly, like cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. But there is a more ambitious possibility: to “treat” the ageing process itself in an attempt to slow it.

Of course, the dream of beating back time is an old one. Shakespeare had King Lear lament the tortures of ageing, while the myth of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth in Florida and the eternal life of the Struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels both fed the notion of overcoming ageing.

For some scientists, recent anti-ageing research—on gene therapy, body-part replacement by regeneration and nanotechnology for repairing ageing cells—has breathed new life into this dream. Optimists about average life expectancy’s surpassing 100 years in the coming century, like James W Vaupel, the founder and director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, cite promising animal studies in which the lives of mice have been extended through genetic manipulation and low-calorie diets. They also point to the many life-extending medical advances of the past century as precedents, with no end in sight, and note that average life expectancy in the United States has long been rising, from 47.3 in 1900 to 78.7 in 2010. Others are less sanguine. S Jay Olshansky, a research associate at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago, has pointed out that sharp reductions in infant mortality explain most of that rise. Even if some people lived well into old age, the death of 50% or more of infants and children for most of history kept the average life expectancy down. As those deaths fell drastically over the past century, life expectancy increased, helped by improvements in nutrition, a decline in infectious disease and advances in medicine. But there is no reason to think another sharp drop of that sort is on the cards.

Even if anti-ageing research could give us radically longer lives someday, though, should we even be seeking them? Regardless of what science makes possible, or what individual people want, ageing is a public issue with social consequences,

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