Don’t Hold Your Breath

Why science won’t save us from old age anytime soon.

Retirees bowl in Sun City in Arizona, America's first active retirement community, January 6, 2013.
Retirees bowl in Sun City, Ariz., at America’s first active retirement community. Human longevity is a confluence of so many factors interacting in so many complex ways, making it unlikely that there will ever be a surefire way to live to 120.

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

In an age of breakneck technological and scientific progress, it can seem at times like anything’s possible. Cars are driving themselves. Robots are tooling around Mars, taking pictures, and beaming them back to Earth. People are moving things with their minds.

For all the exponential advances, though, some technologies remain firmly in the realm of science fiction.  We can’t engineer genius babies. We’re never getting our hoverboards. And, perhaps most dispiritingly of all, we haven’t figured out a way to cheat death.

It isn’t for lack of trying. Research centers around the world have teams devoted to the study of human longevity, and scientists have been working furiously for years to uncover the secrets of long life in everything from mice to yeast to hydra. In fact, they’re making a lot of progress, and there’s good reason to be optimistic that they’ll someday hit on a breakthrough that will allow people to live significantly longer than they do today. But if you’re sitting around waiting for the singularity, you might want to stand up and go for a jog instead.

Recent headlines make it seem like the cure for old age is just around the corner. “Brain Experiment Could Give You an Extra 20 Years,” one promised. “Telomerase reverses ageing process,” another declared. “Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?” asked the New York Times Magazine. And National Geographic’s May cover featured a beaming infant and a tantalizing claim: “This baby will live to be 120*.” You might think the asterisk would point to a disclaimer, but it’s a fakeout: The disclaimer reads, “It’s not just hype. New science could lead to very long lives.”

Sadly, such bold predictions are in fact mostly hype, says Jay Olshansky, a gerontologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The story was great,” Olshansky said of the National Geographic piece, which detailed the rapidly growing body of scientific research on the genetic and molecular mechanisms involved in the aging process. “But the title’s all wrong. They shouldn’t be making up numbers like that.” So far, only one person has verifiably lived to be 120, and no one since the year 2000 has even come close.

The legitimate good news is that scientists are finally starting to tackle the problem of aging in a serious way, and some of their early findings are encouraging. Whereas medical research has focused for centuries on finding the causes and cures of specific diseases, a new crop of researchers is taking a different approach. They’re looking for the mechanisms involved in the aging process itself. The thinking is that if you focus on curing just one disease, like diabetes, people will simply die from cancer or a stroke instead. But if you can figure out what makes the body more vulnerable to a broad range of diseases with each passing year, the impact on human health and longevity could be far greater. Olshansky calls this “the longevity dividend.”

Key to this quest are a number of long-running studies of specific populations of especially long-lived people. In rural Ecuador, researchers have pinpointed a genetic mutation that appears to make an isolated group of villagers unusually small of stature—but also less vulnerable to cancer and diabetes. In Hawaii, studies of Japanese-American centenarians pointed to variations in a gene called FOX03 that has also been tied to longevity in other species. And studies of centenarian Ashkenazi Jews in New York City homed in on the apparent genetic source of their unusually high levels of “good cholesterol,” which seems to fight heart disease. Several of the genes and mechanisms identified in these studies have been shown to affect the aging process in lab experiments on mice and other species.

The New York study is helmed by Nir Barzilai, the director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He told me he’s optimistic that a breakthrough in understanding human aging could be on the horizon, given the pace of recent discoveries. But he also pointed out some obstacles.

One problem is that humans are a lot harder to study than mice. A study in Nature this month found that mice injected with a substance that inhibited a molecule known as NF-KB lived longer than normal. Mice injected with NF-KB itself died young. That seems like compelling evidence that the molecule, which is involved in the body’s response to stress, plays a role in how mice age. But what works in mice doesn’t necessarily work in humans. And who’s going to approve the study that injects people with an NF-KB inhibitor and to see how soon they die?

No one—especially since the FDA doesn’t recognize aging as a disease. That makes regulations and approvals trickier for potential anti-aging treatments. And some researchers in the field complain that it makes it harder to get funding for big studies.

The bigger-picture problem is that human longevity is a confluence of so many factors—genes, nutrition, lifestyle, luck—interacting in so many complex ways that there is unlikely ever to be a surefire way to live to 120. And in the meantime, the average lifespan is no longer rising in developed countries the way it did for decades. The United States already has the lowest life expectancy among wealthy nations, thanks to over-eating, substance abuse, and gun violence, among other factors. And some populations have actually seen their life expectancies decrease since 1990.

Olshansky agrees with Barzilai that we should be doing much more to fund scientific research on aging. But he points out that people have been saying for many decades that a big breakthrough is just 10 years away. His advice for those who want to live to see 100: “Get a good pair of running shoes.”

Read more from Slate’s Superman package: Everyday technologies that already give us superpowers. Is human enhancement cheating? Would you use superpowers for good or evil? Manimal rights: human-animal hybrids and chimeras. We may superpower the immune system to fight cancer and other diseases. The science of choosing the perfect mate. How are extreme athletes able to run 100 miles at a time? And militaries are in an arms race to create soldiers who don’t sleep.