By Dave Riley
“[Researchers] administered telomerase to a group of mice suffering from age-related degeneration. The result? The damage went away. The mice didn’t just get better; they got younger.”
ROBERT ETTINGER DIED FOUR YEARS AGO at age 92. He hadn’t intended to. He spent his entire professional life looking forward to living forever. Sort of. For decades, Ettinger, a professor of physics at Wayne State University in Michigan, vigorously investigated the field of cryonics. He believed that bodies frozen in a particular manner could be revived later and brought back to life once science had developed a cure for whatever it was that killed them.
“If civilization endures, medical science should eventually be able to repair almost any damage to the human body,” he wrote, “including freezing damage and senile debility or other cause of death … No matter what kills us, whether old age or disease, and even if freezing techniques are still crude when we die, sooner or later our friends of the future should be equal to the task of reviving and curing us.” Ettinger’s body was frozen and preserved at the Cryonics Institute along with those of his two late wives.
In February of 2011, a few months before Mr. Ettinger passed away, similar beliefs in immortality officially entered the mainstream of popular thought. That’s when Time published an extensive article entitled, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.” Most of that article is actually devoted to the idea that eventually we are going to build computers that are smarter than we are, which can then go on to build even smarter computers.
But one intriguing section talks about one of the causes of aging: the degeneration and eventual disappearance of telomeres, segments of DNA found at the ends of chromosomes. “Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter, and once a cell runs out of telomeres, it can’t reproduce anymore and dies,” says author Lev Grossman. “But there’s an enzyme called telomerase that reverses this process; it’s one of the reasons cancer cells live so long. So why not treat regular non-cancerous cells with telomerase? Not long after, researchers at Harvard Medical School announced in Nature that they had done just that. They administered telomerase to a group of mice suffering from age-related degeneration.” The result? “The damage went away. The mice didn’t just get better; they got younger.”
WHEN WE’RE YOUNG, many of us think we are indestructible. “Teens think they’re bulletproof,” a youth psychologist who counseled kids at our high school once told me. But that all changes, however gradually, with age. I once knew a CEO, a client for whose organization I wrote a monthly newsletter, who, in his early fifties, abruptly resigned and took a similar post with a company less than 100th the size of his old firm. He gave up significant perks, including frequent world travel. Why? “I think he got in touch with his mortality,” the company’s head of Marketing told me. “I think he wanted the next twenty years to be a lot more relaxed than the previous twenty years.”
But not everyone can approach aging with such a sanguine attitude. Some, if they can’t live forever, at least want to look younger longer. That’s why if you look up 411.com’s list of Cosmetic Surgeons in LosAngeles (the actual listing is Bel Air Los Angeles) you find there are 757.
And some people are determined not just to live longer, but to live forever. As Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.” Allen actually dabbled with the idea in the movie Sleeper. The film’s main character, Miles Monroe, who runs a health food restaurant in Greenwich Village, goes to a hospital for an operation on an ulcer. But the procedure goes badly, and Miles ends up being frozen, and then brought back 200 years later. His first concern: his rent is 2,000 months overdue.
ALLEN CAN JOKE ABOUT IT, but the practical implications of living forever are downright frightening. If everybody did it, the world would very quickly run out of living space and the ability to feed its billions. And individuals, by the time they reached, say, age 450, might say, as Winston Churchill did before slipping into his fatal coma, “I’m so bored with it all.”
The prospect of being revivified from a cryonic state also raises at least one significant theological question. Believe me, I mean no disrespect to any religion, particularly my own which has an immutably bedrock belief in Heaven, but if a person’s soul departs for the afterlife at death, what happens to it after the body is brought back to life? And by the way, if a soul in Heaven realized his body was about to come alive again on earth, would he not most likely object in the strongest terms? “What are people doing down there? I don’t want to go back to earth. I’m already in a far, far better place!”
Mrs. R., after reading an early draft of this post, made the most practical statement on the subject. She was quoting the late British novelist Susan Ertz, who wrote: “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”