Age Before Beauty

Can we really live to 1000?
It is said that there are only two things in life that are certain: taxes and death. With the recent increase in VAT it is […]

Art by Emma Wilkins and Elizaveta Gelfrekh.

It is said that there are only two things in life that are certain: taxes and death. With the recent increase in VAT it is difficult to dispute the former, but what are the prospects of putting off death? Ageing is the greatest cause of morbidity (illness) and mortality (death) in the world, so why isn’t more being done to combat it? Surely, the deaths of 100,000 people a day—equivalent to two-thirds of the population of Oxford—are worth paying attention to.The prevailing opinion is that ageing is inevitable and unavoidable; however, there are a growing number of academics who are challenging this uninviting fate. Dr Aubrey de Grey, a leading biomedical gerontologist (aging specialist), has received public attention as well as widespread criticism from the scientific community for his declaration that “the first person to live to the age of 1000 is alive today”. Although his optimism has elicited scepticism and controversy, it has also fuelled academic interest in the field of biogerontology (the study of the ageing process)..In his 2002 paper Time to Talk SENS: Critiquing the Immutability of Human Aging, in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, de Grey elaborates on his contentious claim.

SENS— Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence—are “an integrated set of medical techniques designed to restore youthful molecular and cellular structure to aged tissues and organs”. This ‘maintenance strategy’ differs from current methods, as it aims to reverse the damage that occurs due to metabolism rather than prevent it (gerontology) or prevent the process by which the damage leads to pathology or cell death (geriatrics). On the SENS website (, de Grey cites many papers that are believed to demonstrate the building blocks of this anti-ageing procedure. Indeed one such paper by L. Regan and co-workers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA (PNAS) in 2000 explores the application of molecules which can break cross-links between cells to reduce the stiffness of heart tissue—so-called AGE-breaking molecules.De Grey believes he has identified seven all-encompassing biological causes of ageing (senescence), which have been put together to structure SENS (see table). SENS not only focuses on longevity—keeping the Grim Reaper at bay—but also provides a framework for eliminating many of the  common afflictions that plague the population as they age. The proposition that you and I might live to the ripe old age of 1000 is explained by a concept termed by de Grey as ‘Longevity Escape Velocity’ (LEV).

LEV suggests that in the next 30 years or so, the progress in regenerative medicine will allow us to live for another 30 years, and in those intervening years technology will gradually progress so that we can live for a further 30 years, and so on. The technology necessary to begin this chain reaction is available, but more active research into the subject is essential and, accordingly, more funding is needed to support progress in this field.The ageing population is currently seen as a burden on society and something to be feared.  In general the view is that the longer a person is able to live, the longer they spend in retirement, and the more dependent they become on the younger working population for support. What de Grey predicts is a healthier, more able, older generation that would not retire at 65 and be bed-bound 5 years later. To cope with the changing dependency ratio, it is likely that the retirement age will increase.

The prospect of significantly extending life is tantalising and seems to be within the realms of possibility during our lifetimes. The MIT Technology Review offered a prize of $20,000 to anyone who was able to prove that SENS was “so wrong that it was unworthy of learned debate”. There were no successful entrants, though the main criticism of SENS was the lack of technology currently capable of accomplishing its end goals. So watch this space—SENS could yet pave the way to a utopian, long lived, illness free, future!

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About Abubakar Abioye

Abubakar Abioye is a third year medical student at Balliol currently doing an FHS in neuroscience.