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Athletic at the age of 120: the humanist case for the abolition of ageing

An edited transcript of a talk by David Wood who is Chair of London Futurists, co-founder of the Transhumanist Party UK, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. David has an honorary Doctorate in Science from Westminster University. David argues that ‘superlongevity’ is a realistic possibility and that it would be very good for humanity.

The acceleration of technological change

Some of the most interesting things happen by disruptions, by outside forces. I used to work for Psion which made handheld computers. But we were about to be impacted by the world of smart mobile phones. Our ambition was to combine Psion operating systems and mobile phone applications. Our partners such as Nokia sold hundreds of millions of phones using our software. This sets a pattern of collaboration and convergence for what’s going to happen in many other technologies such as biotech and artificial intelligence in the years ahead. Disruption is often followed by a slow and disappointing phase which is sometimes followed by a fast and furious phase. Disruption requires not just new technology but a whole new supportive ecosystem of training, legal agreements and so forth. Disruption often happens in waves and the next wave is often bigger than the last one.

Arguably, there have been four industrial revolutions and each revolutionary wave gets shorter because of positive feedback cycles: the first one based on steam and mechanisation lasted for 120 years; the second based on electricity, chemicals and mass production lasted for 80 years; the third based on computers and electronics lasted for 50 years; and we are now in the early phase of the fourth industrial revolution called NBIC:

  • NanoTech (e.g. computers so small they could enter the bloodstream and your brain)

  • BioTech (manipulating our genes, better healthcare)

  • InfoTech (big data processing, artificial intelligence)

  • CognoTech (improving the neurons in our brain)

The biggest feedback cycle comes from more people on the earth: more brains, more people who are highly educated, people who are networked together. We have more scientists, engineers, designers, educators and entrepreneurs than ever before. We are likely to see more change and more disruption in the next twenty years than in any preceding twenty years period.

Disruptions in the field of ageing

There have been three major approaches to dealing with illness:

  1. Bad behaviour: illness caused by vice and immorality – the cure was repentance and good behaviour

  2. Bad hygiene: illness caused by germs and poor sanitation – the cure included antibiotics and vaccines

  3. Bad biology: illness caused by cellular damage – the cure is to fix ageing

The fourth industrial revolution is gradually putting this within our grasp – the ability to address damage at the cellular and intercellular level. Heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s are all diseases of ageing (also referred to as senescence - the condition or process of deterioration with age). Gompertz’s Law (after Benjamin Gompertz, 1825) states that after middle age our risk of mortality from all causes doubles every eight years. Is this a hard fact of nature or can we do something about it?

Some people do not fall foul of these diseases and they are often in family clusters. Some people are called ‘super-agers’: they get to the age of 95 with no cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes or cognitive decline. They can have active lives into their early 100s. They eventually die of course but not of the usual chronic diseases which are so costly but from rapidly-acting infections. We should be exploring what’s genetically different about these people. So if we could replicate super-aging it could have major economic benefits.

Three waves of healthy ageing

  1. Technology to help people ‘age in place’ e.g. accident sensors

  2. Technology to enable more people to be super-agers – living like they’re 75 even though they’re 95+ (learning from diets and lifestyles as well as genetics)  

  3. Technology enabling people to be ‘forever young’: living like you’re 35 even though you’re 125+. This is possible by the year 2060, with a 50% probability. If society makes it a priority we could reach this sooner, by 2040.

Reactions to the idea of healthy superlongevity

You may be in two minds. You may think it would be nice to live a bit longer and that it would be better for the economy if people were healthier in later life. At the same time you make think this is a bit dangerous, an unrealistic fantasy. You may think we should focus on problems like Covid or malaria. You may think in the long term it would be disastrous for the planet in terms of overpopulation, climate change, inequality, and so forth. I want to argue that it is a realistic possibility and that it would be very good for humanity.

The naked mole rat is an example in nature of an animal that does not age. Their lifespan is 32+ years which is the world record for rodents. They are highly resistant to cancer and osteoarthritis. Dipping into the science a bit, we all have something called hyaluronic acid (HA) in the connective tissue between our cells. Naked mole rats have longer chains and higher molecular weights of hyaluronic acid than other animals. The famously wrinkly Shah-Pei dog also has long-chain hyaluronic acid in its connective tissue. Shah-Pei dogs have a significantly reduced incidence of tumours. Experiments with the HA gene have produced transgenic mice which are fitter, stronger, smoother, less prone to cancer, and which have some increase in lifespan. Calico Life Sciences, an offshoot of Google, has recently published research results which confirm that naked mole rats defy the Gompertz Law. Other species resistant to ageing include lobsters, the rougheye rockfish (which can live 200+ years), bowhead whales (which can live 120+ years), quahog clams (500+ years), the Great Basin bristlecone pine (5,000 years), and the albatross (one example of which continues to lay eggs at age 68).

“I'm inclined to agree with Richard Feynman: ‘There is nothing yet found in biology that indicates the inevitability of death… it is only a matter of time before biologists discover the cause and find the cure’.”

We are seeing a Copernican revolution in the bio-gerontological world whereby ageing is being put at the centre of analysis rather than the periphery. Ageing is caused by damage to fundamental biological processes, such as stem cells no longer regenerating, the inflammation reaction becoming chronic, our cells’ ability to adapt to stress going wrong, our network of proteins stopping working, our metabolism creating too much junk causing damage to large molecules and causing our proteins to misfold, and causing our epigenetics and regulatory RNA to go wrong. There are lots of ideas about how to deal with these causes. So we could put more research into all of these areas.

Living involves a complex metabolism of biochemical reactions. These biochemical reactions animate us but they have some damaging side-effects at the cellular level. When we’re young, we have lots of repair mechanisms which deal with the damage but over time the repair mechanisms also get damaged. The damage makes us more prone to the diseases of old age, including increased susceptibility to Covid-19. The more damage we accumulate the more we  experience multiple co-morbidities. Eventually the damage gets too much and we die.

So why not edit the biological metabolism inside humans to reduce the damage? That’s quite promising but it’s very difficult because most of the changes have side effects which are hard to manage. The best approach is to do what the human body already does which is to remove damage periodically. A bit like going to the dentist to get damage treated early before it causes any more problems. This is less hard because there is a limited number of categories of damage. This is best summarised by the gerontologist Aubrey de Grey who says that ageing is caused by seven types of damage. He calls this SENS: Strategies for Engineering Negligible Senescence. It includes replacing lost and atrophied cells with stem cells, the removal of zombie cells, removing intracellular waste products and so on.

We can learn from how nature deals with accumulating damage, we can copy mechanisms from nature and we might even go beyond nature’s capabilities with things like nanobots. So what can we learn from nature? The axolotyl salamander can regenerate its limbs, tails, eyes, jaws, spinal cord, part of its heart and part of its brain. People are studying it hard to find out how it does it and whether we can repair human spinal cords for example.

As we age, our cells lose their ability to divide. The chromosomes get copied but the bit at the end of the chromosomes, called telomeres, don’t get completely copied so they get shorter over time and eventually the cells can no longer divide. But there is an enzyme which can extend the telomeres again. Mice injected with this kind of gene therapy have increased their lifespan by 24%.

A technique known as parabiosis has also been used whereby the blood from two mice, one old and one young, circulates between them. This has had a rejuvenating effect on the old mouse but unfortunately an ageing effect on the young mouse. So it’s not seriously being considered as a treatment yet but it’s an interesting area of research. See the TED talk on this by Tony Wyss-Coray. Rats treated with plasma injections also showed a rejuvenation effect on blood, liver, and heart. 

To conclude, let’s look at the future of this technological ecosystem. In the 1980s about ten people were working seriously on ageing. My observations indicate that this number is growing tenfold every decade so by the end of the 2030s we may have a million people working on it. So it’s a hard problem, but it could be solved if we get a million people collaborating in a constructive way. These people work in a variety of industries: cosmetics, military, sports, food, pharma, IT and so on. We will also see people wanting to invest in these technologies. So by the 2040s it’s likely that we will see affordable, comprehensive, and reliable therapies in wide use. 120 year olds will be quite athletic – 120 might be the new 80 and eventually 120 will be the new 30. My estimate is that the probability of success is 50% provided society decides to do it.

People ask why don’t you just accept ageing? You may remember the ‘Serenity Prayer’ which has some good advice for humanists as well as religious believers: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The difference changes over time and science enables us to intervene more and more.

“Nature, left to its own devices, wants five of your seven children dead, it wants you dead by 50, and everything better than that is brought to you by science, technology and good politics.” David Frum

Further reading and watching

  • The Abolition of Aging: The forthcoming radical extension of healthy human longevity (2016) David Wood

  • Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime (2008) Aubrey De Grey

  • David Wood's talk was delivered over Zoom to Dorset Humanists in June 2020. You can watch the full talk here.

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