Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Getting Old

by Conroy

Jeanne Calment - the oldest person on record (122 yrs.)
What if we never had to get old? A couple of days ago I kept encountering this theme. First, there was a minor headline on the cover of this past week’s edition of The Economist that hinted at an answer to this most captivating of questions. I was immediately intrigued and excitedly flipped through the magazine to find the article. My mind was alive with thoughts of about staying forever young, about immortality. Alas, and not surprisingly despite my silly reaction, the article related emerging science that promised considerably less.

Read the article for the specific details, but experiments in mice have shown that counteracting certain genes in cells that have reached their biological age limit can check some of the deterioration associated with aging. Someday, it is hoped, these types of approaches could be used to ease the effects of senescence in humans. I hope, for not entirely selfish reasons, someday comes sooner rather than later.

Then, by sheer coincidence, I was re-reading a portion of James Joyce’s Ulysses – searching for a remembered (different) passage – when I rediscovered the following paragraphs (it’s a longish excerpt, but worth it [1]):

What spectacle confronted them when they, from the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit. [2]

With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?
Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipent lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Major) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of so called fixed stars, in reality evermoving from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.

And then by further coincidence, I flipped on the television and caught the very end of Rocky III, where in a more succinct and less inflated way than Joyce, Apollo Creed [3] says to Rocky, in a fleeting reflective aside about the waning of his once overwhelming physical skills:

"You know Stallion?  It's too bad we gotta get old."
And so my mind settled on the sad fact of getting old and mortality. Happy thoughts, I know, but ones we’re all apt to brood over from time to time.

I’m 31-years-old, and I still throb with the vigor of youth [4]. But in the coming years the signs of aging are going to appear. We all know these signs: decreasing speed, dexterity, and reaction time; graying hair; balding (for men); wrinkles; weight gain; loss of muscle mass and bone density; lower sex drive; flagging energy; arthritis; deteriorating vision and hearing; loss of collagen that makes your skin all droopy and inelastic; age spots; age-related illnesses like heart disease; memory loss, and maybe dementia. Just think of your grandparents. Nothing that you look forward to, all things you want to delay as long as possible. It’s not a pretty picture. Just compare the following two photographs.

 Robert Redford in his early 30s

 Robert Redford in his mid-70s

(Of course I’m planning (read: hoping) to age well, like Paul Newman or Cary Grant. No one has actually laughed when I’ve suggested this, which is nice of them.)

And then somewhere along the arc of aging, we die. Aging and death are cruel facts, especially for intelligent life. It’s cruel that humans can witness our senescence and contemplate our physical demise. But, contemplation is the first step to understanding, which is where we stand; there are several theories about why we age:

  • Cell division limits. The cells that comprise many of our body systems have a limit on the number of times they can divide. This is because each division results in the loss of some cell information, and as a critical point is reached, cells can’t divide. The biological reason is sound. The more times a cell divides the more chances for a mutation. Unlimited cell divisions would greatly increase the risk of cancer. So cells have a built-in (imperfect) anti-cancer mechanism. Unfortunately the result is that after a cell reaches its division limit, it will age. As it ages it degrades and the mechanisms for maintenance, repair, and defense breakdown. Your cells get old. 
  • Evolution. There is a concept call extrinsic mortality that states the longer an organism is alive, the higher the chances it will die from an external cause (predation, disease, accident, etc.). Hence, it’s more important from an evolutionary perspective that an individual be strong and able to reproduce when young (when it’s more likely to still be alive) than when it’s old (and less likely to be alive). So evolution has favored genes based on how strong and fit they allow an individual to be when young (strongly selected by nature) compared to those that extend an individual’s lifespan (weakly selected by nature). Some genes may result in strong and fit bodies when young but have deleterious effects in the longer-term. That’s nature favoring the species over the individual. This theory of aging is supported by the fact that prey species tend to have shorter lives then predator species, especially in zoos. Prey species have a higher extrinsic mortality (they get eaten) and so are evolved to reproduce when quite young and not fit for a long lifespan. 
  • Environment. There are elements in the environment that can damage our DNA. Things like free radicals that are released into our body with every breath, sugar build-up in cells, and external radiation.  
  • Systems failure. Our body is made up of many complex parts, of systems. General systems theory  (all system not just the biological) states that systems will tend to fail more over time – to age – even if they are composed of non-aging components. So basically our bodies will start to breakdown, to fail, as time goes on. 

Probably human aging is the result of all of these, and maybe others. In any case, it seems that complex life is bound to lose when fighting nature. The Second Law of Thermodynamics – entropy – says that nature progresses from concentrated to diffused, from order to disorder. And higher life, like humans, is definitely a highly organized form of biological matter. It’s only a matter of time before something, be it errors in cell division, environmental stresses, glitches in the body’s routine processes, or the hazards of nature, conspire to disorganize us. For the true miracles of life and consciousness we are bound to senescence and death.

Stay Young
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told, by elder relatives, or the grandparents of friends, by coworkers, or plain old strangers (literally strangers that are old), to “don’t get old.” On its own this specific (and entirely) unsolicited advice is sound, all things considered, I’d prefer not to get old. But not one person offering the “don’t get old” guidance has followed up with concrete approaches to actually avoid getting old, and really, that’s the most important part. It’s all well and good to advise against aging, but then you have to back it up with how that can be accomplished.

So lacking any outside help, I’ve developed my own list of possible measures (you can judge the likely effectiveness, reasonableness, and feasibility):
  • Exercise and diet. This approach has the positive quality of being doable, but the negative of not actually keeping you youthful forever. Nevertheless, consistent and well-rounded exercise and a conscientious diet can keep you trim, your muscles and bones strong, and your heart fit, and plenty of other positive side effects. There’s lots of mitigating factors in aging [5], but all else being equal, regular exercise and good diet will keep you healthier longer.  
  • Negligible senescence. We can count on science to unlock the details of aging. To figure out how to control the negative effects of cells reaching their division limit; to moderate or turn off genes that promote aging, and turn on those that keep us young; and reverse the effects of environmental factors like free radicals. These ideas might be bordering on science fiction, but surely some scientific advances can help us slow the effects of aging (see The Economist article noted above). Likely, the future will bring fuller understanding, but limited solutions. I’m reminded of the movie Blade Runner [6]. The android “replicants,” are driven to dangerous limits by their very human desire to eliminate their built-in termination dates, only to realize that the best science and the knowledge of the very engineers that created them is helpless against the facts of aging.  
  • Computer brain. Maybe some brilliant scientists will develop a method to download our human consciousness (including knowledge, memory, etc.) from our time-limited bodies to theoretically timeless computers. (Now we’re firmly in science fiction territory.) Impossible? Maybe, and I offer no possible ideas on how this might work, but the promise of immortality – even a greatly distorted and strange one like existing inside a computer network – is a tantalizing dream. 
  • Dorian Gray. Or one could choose to make a Faustian deal like Wilde’s Dorian Gray. (This isn’t even science fiction.) Gain permanent youth for the price of their soul. A deal worth making? 
  • The Fountain of Youth. Or, at last resort, we can head to Florida and search for the Fountain of Youth that Ponce de Leon never found [7]. Sometimes legends are true. 
Dorian Gray and his picture

Okay, so the last few ideas are…less likely…but thoughts of aging and death lead to some desperate ideas. The three score and ten years (plus some hopefully) of allotted human life are infinitesimally brief in the scheme of it all. Where’s the justice in that? It’s too bad we gotta get old.



[1] This passage is taken from midway through the “Ithaca” episode, near the end of the novel. This episode features a style of an impersonal scientific catechism and, according to Stuart Gilbert, was Joyce’s favorite. 

[2] This long excerpt also allows me to get this gorgeous line of prose into a post; Joyce made magic with words.

[3] Apollo Creed is of course an entirely fictional character, and as written, one of limited depth. But all credit to Carl Weathers for breathing life into the character. His Creed ended up being one of the highlights of the Rocky series and his absence, starting from the second half of Rocky IV, greatly, and negatively, affected the final three movies. His quote at the end of Rocky III is probably up there with the fantastic end of the fight in Rocky as the best moments of the entire series (and I mean that).

[4] And for some years to come hopefully.

[5] Like stress for one. You could cut out all forms of stress. Don’t have any kids, maybe avoid marriage, and eschew any serious responsibility at work. In fact, avoid responsibilities of all kinds. However, this approach seems self-defeating. It’s fine to limit stress, but you want to live your life – to engage in the struggle – and stay young.

[6] Blade Runner is one of the best science fiction movies. It’s remarkably rendered near-future ultra-bleak Los Angeles is the perfect setting for a story about what it means to be human, to live and die, to love and connect in a technologically dominated world. This may sound like a well-worn and overstated take on the movie, but I challenge you to not empathize with the plight of the replicants, especially as Roy (portrayed ominously by Rutger Hauer) states at the end: “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the darkness at Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain. Time to die."

[7] Is it any coincidence that Florida is a preeminent retirement destination? My parents are part of the huge and growing cohort that have chosen Florida as the home for their later years (hopefully many many more – their only in their early 60s). Judging by how joyful they seem, what appears to be a non-stop lifestyle, and the enviable climate, they may have found the Fountain of Youth right in the heart of Sumter County.

1 comment:

  1. My girlfriend reminded me of an irony about aging, or at least about our tendency to overlook the quality of our younger years, by quoting George Bernard Shaw: Youth is wasted on the young.