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Math & Science- Feb 23, 2016

Who Wants To Live Forever

Throughout history, immortality has been an obsession for humanity. Long ago, kings would summon their alchemists and command them to discover the secrets of eternal youth. However, the results speak from themselves: all of these kings are dead. Now, science –rather than alchemy– is addressing the question of how to make people live longer than their natural life spans. But how?

‘Immortals’ by dynamosquito

In order to live longer, we first need to have a basic idea of what aging is. What is this mysterious force that slowly sucks the life out of us and makes us look, in the absence of a better word, well old?

To put it simply, it is the accumulation of damage in our bodies on a microscopic level. This includes damage to different tissues, macromolecules, DNA or mitochondria. Eventually, our bodies are unable to support the burden of living and finally shut down.

How to live longer?
There are already a few things you can do if you want to out-live your friends and neighbours by a few decades. Live a more active, healthier life – take care of your body.

Avoiding unhealthy food can prevent you from dying prematurely from a heart attack, but the true secret to living longer through diet lies with calorie restriction. Numerous studies have shown that restricting your diet slows down your metabolism which, in turn, slows down the rate at which you age.

There are also certain foods that carry additional health benefits when it comes to aging, red wine being one of the most popular. Red wine contains multiple substances that will result in longevity. These include anti-oxidants which help soak up free oxygen radicals that are a key factor in damage to mitochondrial DNA, as well as the cell as a whole. Red wine also contains antibiotics that, at least in earthworms, block proteins that cut your life span.

The answer lies in genes and blood?
As you may guess, in the great gamble of life, your genes also affect the rate at which you age. Researchers have successfully targeted a handful of the genes that effect how fast you age. They were even able to create fruit files that lived twice as long as their predecessors, by selectively breeding fruit files with high expression of these genes.

However, selectively breeding humans does not sound like a practical method for extending life, besides it won’t help people who are already alive.

Vampires are famous for their eternal youth, and it turns out maybe humans can learn a thing or two from them. While blood does contain many nutrients, digesting it isn’t a method for living longer. However, blood does indeed have some rejuvenating effects.

Research has shown that an old mouse living in parabiosis (with their blood streams and organisms connected) with a young one, will start to show signs of rejuvenation in its own cells. On the flip side the young mouse starts to age more. So, maybe in the future, people will start to adopt a Mad Max style blood bag in the hopes of gaining a few years.

Another factor that affects aging are your telomeres – genetic caps at the ends of each strand of DNA. With each division of your cells the telomeres get shorter, and thus the number of times the cells can divide is lessened. Therefore, preventing your telomeres from shortening or increasing the length of telomeres could stop or rewind your clock, thus extending your life indefinitely.

Though there is an enzyme, telomerase, that helps preserve the length of telomeres, over expression of telomerase isn’t a good idea. Well-known examples of cells where telomeres don’t get shorter and cells can divide indefinitely are cancer cells. Unfortunately, there are known for ending your life, rather than lengthening it.

Right now, your best bet for reaching the ripe old age of two or three hundred are technologies aimed at repairing the damage caused by aging, rather than preventing it altogether.

The analogy of a human body as a machine is often used when describing this method of life extension. A good car can last several times its life span if it is regularly maintained and repaired.

However´, this technology is still in development, so until then: eat less, drink red wine and hope you have had some luck with your genes.

Daniel Davies is a high school student studying at Tampereen lyseon lukio in the international baccalaureate programme. Fan of all things sciency, but especially interested in the field of biology.