Andrew Steele, a biologist, thinks aging is a condition that can be handled.
But if we had a cure for aging, what would that mean for us?
They are sometimes unbelieving and often hostile when biologist Andrew Steele tells people his thoughts on aging – that one day we will cure it like any other disease. Once, he left a group of guests slightly irritated at a friend’s wedding because he implied that people in the near future could live well into their 100s.
At dinner parties, where responses are more polite but no less sceptical, something similar happens. He comprehends the reaction. We accept that aging is an inevitable part of life—we’re born, we’re getting old, that’s the way it goes. “That’s been the narrative for thousands of years,” he says in a video call.
But what if it didn’t need to be like that?
As a physicist, Steele began his professional life.
He was fascinated by space even as a boy, as many scientists are.
Yet he’s been writing a book on biogerontology for the last three years, a scientific study of aging, in which he advocates for a future in which our lives continue on and on.
Steele considers aging “the greatest humanitarian issue of our time.” He means it when he calls aging “the greatest cause of suffering in the world,” “Aging is this inevitable, insidious thing that happens,”Aging is the inevitable, insidious thing that happens. He is wearing a button-down shirt and, at 35, a look of hope that is still youthful. We are all pretty blind to the point of that.
But what are people dying of? Heart disease, cancer.
Stroke. In elderly people, these problems all occur, and they occur mostly because of the aging process.
Steele describes aging as “the exponential increase in death and suffering over time,” and he thinks it would be beneficial to “finally address this raw quantity of suffering.” Every seven or eight years, human mortality risk doubles. We appear to go relatively unscathed, health-wise, for the first five or six decades of our lives.
We may wake up with an ache or slightly sagging skin in our 50s, but if we discover a tumor, develop arthritis or develop heart issues, we’re still usually considered unlucky. A 50-year-old man’s death from illness is a premature death.
But at some stage in our 60s, there seems to be a kind of cliff edge that we can sometimes just trip over. Simple moves are becoming challenging. We are starting to lose our hearing and our sight. Things that are upsetting and humiliating start to happen. Why am I no longer able to feel the tips of my toes? What’s happening to my hip in this world? For years, the body has been working tirelessly, and the accumulated internal consequences of that operation – the troublesome accumulation of aged ‘senescent’ cells; the risky mutations of other cells; the slow deterioration of the immune system; the general wear and tear of the structures of the body – are unexpectedly predisposing us to a host of age-related diseases: cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, dementia
For a 10-year-old, the chance of death is 0.00875 per cent .
The risk has risen to 1 percent at age 65.
We have a one in five chance of dying that year if we live to 92. We’re normally good for decades, says Steele, and then, all of a sudden, we’re not.
“The dream of anti-aging medicine,” Steele writes in his book Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old, “is a treatment that identifies the root causes of dysfunction in old age and then slows their progression or reverses them altogether.” These root causes are called hallmarks by biogerontologists. “Cancer is not a hallmark of aging,” says Steele now. “But it is caused by some of the hallmarks of aging.” If scientists can address those hallmarks, “we can develop treatments that slow the overall aging process and postpone disease into the future.”
It is not our dream that we will live longer for the sake of life, but that we will live longer in good health.
Some people call that longevity; Steele refers to it as “increasing a person’s ‘healthspan.'” “There’s this misconception when you talk to people about treating aging,” he says. “They imagine they’re going to live longer, but in a state of terrible decrepitude, that you’re going to extend their 80s and 90s so they’re going to sit in a nursing home for 50 years. That doesn’t make sense from a logical or practical standpoint.