Most of these trials will fail, Kirkland said. Most tests do. “People should try to be dispassionate, even though everyone has a vested interest in this game. I mean, every living person does.”
I called the biologist Martin Raff, who retired from University College London 20 years ago, when he was not 65. Among other things, Raff had worked on cellular senescence. He told me that after a long and fortunate life, he feels ready to leave.
Today, the field that Benzer envisioned in his Fly Room last century is being taken seriously not only on Wall Street and Silicon Valley and Riyadh, but also at the National Institutes of Health. It’s starting to look more like a normal branch of research medicine, just a more plausible program to follow.
The idea, of course, is to add good years to our lives without subtracting the number of bad years at the end.
Studying the clock can actually teach us ways to slow some of the fundamental deterioration we call aging, to treat everything that makes our bodies increasingly vulnerable to chronic disease as we age: senescent cells, for example If we can do that, according to what’s known as the geroscience hypothesis, we can fight all these chronic diseases at once: arthritis, atherosclerosis, cancer, deafness, dementia, diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke.
The idea, of course, is to add good years to our lives without subtracting the number of bad years at the end. This is called morbidity compression. Nobody knows if it can be done, so the compression of morbidity is really a hypothesis on top of a hypothesis. Still, that’s what most centenarians are capable of. They stay healthy two or three decades longer than the rest of us, and many of them feel quite well at 100. “The bird is fine, the bird is fine, the bird is fine, it’s dead.”
But we are all mortal, and our species will be mortal for a long time.
I zoomed in on a Canadian writer and academic I know, Andy Stark, author of The consolations of mortality. Maybe it’s just sour grapes, Andy told me, but he thinks it’s actually better to be mortal. His book explores many of the pitfalls of eternal life, including the dreaded problem of boredom. How many times would you like to ride a roller coaster? In Longing for this world, I also look at other issues, including the sixth extinction: the planetary catastrophe unfolding around us, inflicted by the fulfillment of so many human desires. What part of this disaster would you really like to see?
A few years ago, Andy Stark gave a talk at a symposium on the science of longevity. Aubrey de Gray was in the audience. When Andy finished, Aubrey came on stage and challenged him. If I offered you 30 healthier years, Aubrey said, you’d take it, right? And after that, wouldn’t you take the next 30 years and the next 30? Etc?