I Wanted Eternal Life
Then I talked to some of the world’s best scientists about what it means to grow old.
I first spoke with Mair this past October, only a few days after researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York, published a study stating that there is a natural limit on how long humans can live—somewhere around the 115-year mark. If the authors are correct, that means the record for the longest-known human lifespan, which belongs to a French woman who died in 1997 at age 122, will not be broken any time soon.
Mair, however, found the study to be frustratingly shortsighted. He agrees that our bodies likely have an upper limit at this moment in time, but there is no intellectual basis to rule out the possibility that, in the future, human cells will be able to live as long as cells from a quahog clam—an animal that has been known to survive for more than 500 years in the wild. Evolution occurs over an incredibly long time, Mair explains, and we’ve only just begun regularly living into our seventies.
To an outsider, Mair’s musings might seem like the heady science of academia. None of us will be around 10,000 generations from now to see how it pans out. But these big ideas underpin some of the most promising advancements in aging research and may well lead to interventions that allow us to grow older while delaying the bad stuff. This year, a team at the Mayo Clinic reported that through genetic engineering it had extended the lifespan of mice by as much as 35 percent and pushed off the onset of age-associated health effects. In 2015, a Swiss scientist found that modifying a gene that kills unhealthy cells in fruit flies extended the insects’ lifespan by as much as 60 percent.
Mair himself is trying to determine why and how our metabolism flies off the rails as we get older, and if controlling it will keep us alive longer. In studies of nematode worms—ugly little creatures with roughly the same number of genes as humans—he’s found that severely restricting their diets allows them to live longer and age slower. Mair suspects the phenomenon is linked to an energy sensor in the worm’s cells called AMPK. It’s a crucial process to understand, as some of the most prevalent chronic diseases in the world—including diabetes and heart diseases—are linked to metabolic dysfunction in humans.
The deeper that scientists dive into these biological puzzles, the more complex aging reveals itself to be. Most of us speak of it as a piecemeal degradation of our bodies—a bum ticker, a bad back, a faltering brain. But that’s not really how it works. “You could think of aging as something that happens separately to each part of the body,” says Amy Wagers, a professor at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. “But probably more accurately it’s something that happens in a concerted way, not only to the individual cells and organs, but also in the ways they talk to one another.”
Few scientists have endured as many Fountain of Youth and vampire jokes as Wagers. Several years ago, she reported that pumping the blood from a young mouse into an old mouse had remarkable rejuvenating effects thanks to a protein called GDF11, which seems to appear in higher levels in young blood. The benefits were dramatic and wide-ranging: The older mice recovered from injuries quicker; their hearts were suddenly cleared of the age-related thickening that comes with time; and they regained muscle mass. It’s not that Wagers had succeeded in actually reversing aging. Instead, she says, she restored functions that were lost to it.
From the start, all I wanted from my conversations with Wagers and Mair was a quick fix to ensure my 89.9 good years: Order a vial of young blood on the Internet, for example, or supercharge my AMPK sensors by eating heaps of a bizarre berry grown only in the foothills of Mongolia. Unfortunately, they had no such suggestions. Fascinating and forward-looking as their research may be, the truth is they’ve barely scratched the surface.
Instead, the advice they doled out was the same as just about every primary-care doctor’s: Exercise, get enough sleep, definitely don’t smoke, eat well, and try not to dwell on it.
Given the underwhelming nature of these recommendations, I asked Wagers whether devoting a career to understanding how we’ll break down later in life has soured her on the prospect of getting old. “In all honesty,” she says, “aging is better than the alternative.”
As I rode my bike home from wagers’s office, helmet firmly strapped to my head, I thought back to a conversation I had last year with Angelo Volandes, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital who focuses on end-of-life care. To get people to talk openly about death, he recently started making short videos to help families understand what life-prolonging care in a hospital setting might look like when the end is imminent.
But Volandes sees no point in waiting until we’re confronted with these decisions to get the ball rolling. The idea is that a tiny bit of preparation can go a long way when it comes time to make the really tough choices. For someone who deals with such a sensitive issue, Volandes is funny, gregarious, and blunt, and the first time we spoke he told me that my wife and I should absolutely be talking about what a good death means to us despite our relative youth and wellness. “We have to be open with these conversations, whether you’re 92 or 22,” he explained.
His reasoning is sound: Shit could hit the fan at any moment, and it’s a lot better to know what your partner would want if, God forbid, a breathing tube were jammed down his or her throat in an emergency. This isn’t just about drafting wills and drawing up detailed estate plans. It’s about having a conversation with those who mean the most to you to get everyone on the same page.
Sensible as it may seem, I didn’t heed Volandes’s advice that first time around. My wife and I have talked about death, but it always ends up laced with punch lines about pulling the plug on each other and layered in self-deprecating snark. Looking for a bit of motivation, I gave Volandes a call and updated him on my status: The wife is pregnant, the possibility of death suddenly seems real, and the only thing I’ve done about it is purchase a $180 bike helmet.
First off, Volandes told me, take a deep breath: The bike helmet is one of the best and most effective steps I could have taken if I’m serious about extending my chances of survival: “The likelihood of something catastrophic happening to you is almost definitely in the form of an accident at your age.”
Other than that, his suggestions seemed to align with Bill Belichick’s “ignore the noise” philosophy during game week. All the hype—the age-defying potions, the miracle diets, and the promising breakthroughs just around the corner—only sets us up for false expectations. And though people like Bhasin, Mair, and Wagers are doing incredible research, science is slow and imperfect.
As I’m beginning to learn, part of becoming a parent is gaining a greater understanding of the fragility of life. As Volandes puts it, a good life is a life that eventually comes to an end, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that up front. “This is a conversation that you have to have,” he says, “and you have to be honest with yourself and you have to be honest with your spouse.”
A few nights after chatting with Volandes, my wife and I took a walk through Cambridge, up through Central Square and into Kendall. We strolled by the Novartis research center and past Pfizer’s lab, talking about death and our growing family.
It didn’t need to be a long or sad conversation to be fruitful. We agreed that if anything happened to one of us at this point, we’d illegally scatter the ashes near the top of a hill at the park where we got engaged. We talked about how we wouldn’t want doctors to throw everything at us for the sake of living a few more weeks if we ended up brain damaged and couldn’t communicate. We agreed that these are the plans as of now, and that the plans will certainly change as our family grows older together.
It wasn’t the easiest conversation we’ve ever had, nor was it the hardest. As we circled back down our street and approached our home, all the good of the future came into sharper focus. The distinction between aging and dying was no longer blurred, and the days ahead never looked so bright.
One night this summer, I decided that I didn’t want to live forever. I just want to live a good life and die a good death when the time comes. And most important, do it all in the company of those I love.
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