Some of our cells are immortal and some die with us. Tom Wilkie reports on how understanding the difference may help us slow down ageingby Tom Wilkie / April 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
In Petronius’s satyricon, old age is portrayed as a terrible thing. Deiphobe, the Sibyl of Cumae, hangs from the roof of her cave, withered, ancient and shrunken. Apollo has granted her wish to live for as many years as she holds grains of sand in her hand. But when asked what she now most desired in the world, she replies: “I desire only death.” She had asked for eternal life, not eternal youth.
Now, more than 2,000 years later, modern science may be opening the way to refuting the wisdom of the classical writers. According to Tom Kirkwood, human ageing is neither necessary nor inevitable. He should know. He is Britain’s first professor of biological gerontology (at Manchester University) and the main author of the most influential model of ageing in modern science: the “disposable soma” theory.
Kirkwood does not promise practical applications yet-he is not peddling elixirs of youth. But he holds out the prospect that, with increased understanding of why we age naturally, it may be possible to intervene to slow or even to stop human ageing.
In a sense, the process has already begun. In the week that his book was published, the annual British Social Trends reported that life expectancy is now 75 for men and 80 for women, much longer than the Biblical limit of three score years and ten. Much longer, too, than in Germany a century ago, when Bismark set the pension age at 65 on the understanding that average male life expectancy was then just 66.
The process is global. Around the world, people are living longer. There has also been a widespread decline in infant mortality. The two processes combined means that by 2050, more than one in five of the world’s population will be aged over 65.
But is this just the result of modern medicine removing other causes of death which used to carry us off prematurely? And, if so, will our extended life span leave us wishing we were dead, like the Sibyl? The same Social Trends reports that in the age group 65-74, 52 per cent of men and 51 per cent of women say that they suffer regular pain.
But for Kirkwood, the “wear and tear” theory of ageing is fallacious. Human beings are not like motor cars or other artefacts of our modern world. We are made up of living cells which can repair…