We are all Ponce: The Quest for Longevity

Brenda Cooper @ 10-03-2010

When I was very little, some early-grade teacher lost in the mists of memory told me the story of how Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon spent much of his life searching for the Fountain of Youth. Now that I’m approaching one of those decade birthdays, I can finally relate. Besides, as the leading edge of the baby boom starts retiring, this seems like a good time to take a peek at the science around longevity.

I started out my research with a simple twitter question. The discussion migrated to Facebook, and quite a few weighed in on whether or not they would want to live to be 150 if they could do so in a healthy way and there weren’t other consequences. I wanted to remove the arguments about making room for the young and carrying capacity of the planet. Those are real….but I wasn’t looking for selflessness but rather for real heartfelt answers. And those answers were almost all basically “heck no, we don’t want to go. Keep us in the game. There’s more to learn and more to do and see. Especially if we’re healthy.” As far as I can tell, that’s a pretty universal drive among most individual humans. Give us the Fountain of Youth, and we’ll drink from it.

What’s Happening

There is a lot of hype about various life expectancy tools that may be available to us in the near future. When we learned that our telomeres shortened as we aged, there was much excitement. If we could only make the telomeres on our cells longer, we could reverse aging. We haven’t been able to figure out how to do that so far. There was excitement about reservitrol (a substance common in red wine) until we realized we’d practically have to drown in the stuff to have it work. Which doesn’t mean a lot of people aren’t making money selling it to people who hope youth is made of red wine. Stem cells have so much promise I might do a whole column about that. Now there are discussions about growing replacement organs, and of course, the possibility of uploading to computers if you’ve read Kurzweil’s work.

These ideas aren’t as flip as they sound. The best line from a recent TED talk by Anthony Atala is “If Salamanders can do it why can’t we?” It’s actually worth stopping by the video of the TED talk and spending 17 minutes being convinced we can be transformed to have the regenerative capability of Salamanders. Even better – if you’re a maker, there is a picture of an inkjet printer printing a heart. Really. I was rather awed by the talk.

The unfortunate part is that this is all hard – very hard. It will get here, but it’s going to be a few years. Maybe more than some of us have. So we can’t rely on being given the miracles of salamander-like regeneration to save us, and there’s no software ready to upload me yet, either.

What really seems to work at the moment is:

Where you live matters: This chart shows that living in a developed country increases your life span. If nothing else, it’s a cool chart. At the risk of over-generalization, it also looks like being a bit laid back doesn’t hurt. Canada has the United States beat – of course, that could be a contrast between the two health care systems.

The biggest easily available tool that seems to show actual results right now is calorie restriction. It has worked extremely well in mice, and human tests seem to be bearing this out although the research is in the early stages. In related news, those of us who are not so good at restricting calories have a lower life expectancy. A Science Daily article from about a year ago suggests that obesity can cost us between 3 and 7 years of life.

So live in a good place, eat right and not too much, exercise. Which is pretty much what my mom told me about the same time I first learned about Ponce de Leon. There have been big changes – the height of nutritional knowledge in my household when I was ten included canned food.

My prediction?

We will figure this out and be able to live a lot longer. Luckily for the species, it appears that we won’t get the real breakthroughs on a readily available stage before about the time we peak in population and start going down the population bell curve around 2050. That said, I wouldn’t put the idea of a stem cell wildcard breakthrough in a drawer. It’s likely enough that I’m willing to be hopeful as I count calories and use my lovely fitbit to goad me into walking 10,000 steps a day. There’s that birthday later this year, you know.

Science Fiction and Longevity

The whole growing body parts in a video made me think about Marry Shelley and Frankenstein. So this is all very much not-new. R. A Heinlein’s popular character Lazarus Long is the product of selective breeding.

In fact, we science fiction writer’s take a lot of leeway by creating cold sleep and letting our characters get anywhere without breaking the speed of light. Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky deals beautifully with this, and then Vernor turned around in his next book, Rainbow’s End and reversed aging in one of his characters.

To my utter delight, while I was researching this column, I found a great longevity story by Daniel Keys Moran called “Old Man.” I met Daniel a long time ago through Steven Barnes, a mutual friend, and fell in love with his Continuing Time series. I think it’s been ten years since I read any of his fiction, and here I found a story with a 2007 copyright date. Go Daniel!

What are some of your favorite longevity stories?

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Brenda Cooper’s next science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!

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4 Responses to “We are all Ponce: The Quest for Longevity”

  1. Shockey Funke says:

    Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling. Haven’t read it in a while, but I remember liking the buildup of history the character experiences.

  2. Steven Klotz says:

    White Swan by Jason Stoddard and Pop Squad by Paolo Bacigalupi both deal with the social implications of immortality. Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store and The Writer & the Witch by Robin Sloan explore rather whimsical routes to achieving immortality. Wild Seed by Octavia Butler is probably the novel about immortality that sticks most in my mind.

    Be sure to check out the Immortality TagShadow. Compiling that was why I had those stories at the tip of my mind.

  3. Brenda Cooper says:

    I did listen to – and really like – Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store.

  4. Luc Reid says:

    To seize on one small part of the discussion: we might not want to look to uploading to provide immortality! Even if we move past the huge technological barriers (which I talk about in a Clarkesworld article, “Future Brains: Neuroscience Fiction vs. Neuroscience Fantasy”), there’s no continuity of experience from the biological version of you to the new, electronic copy. That is, if I were successfully modeled down to the last neurological and physiological detail on a computer, there’s nothing that would spontaneously shift my point of view from the physical body to the computer program. I would live on as far as other people were concerned, maybe, but the me that thinks of itself as me would just end.