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The importance of life extension

One of the most important ideas in public health is that we can never really save lives: we just extend them. If a doctor ‘saves the life’ of a 60 year old patient who later dies at 90 years of age, then she hasn’t actually stopped the patient dying, but has extended the patient’s life by 30 years.

With this in mind, consider the recent research by a team from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. They investigated the effects of a vast array of different chemicals on a test organism, the tiny nematode worm C. elegans. While many were found to be harmful, one chemical was greatly beneficial, significantly extending the worm’s short life span.

Followup testing found an even greater effect with a related chemical: an antidepressant called mianserin. By acting on the worm’s nervous system, mianserin increases its life span by 30%. The researchers hypothesize that the drug is having a similar effect on the central nervous system to that produced by calorie restriction (a well known way of increasing life span in animals from nematodes to humans). Mianserin (or related drugs) may thus allow life span extension in other animals without the negative side effects of extreme calorie restriction. Followup experiments on mice have already been planned.

These results are at a very early stage, but their links to trusted life extension techniques make them quite promising. Moreover, it is just one approach among many in the growing field of medical life extension. People typically view these life extension projects very differently to how they view efforts to cure diseases, such as Cancer. They see the former as interesting and somewhat exciting, whereas they see the latter as a moral imperative which deserves urgent government funding.

These views are not consistent. All medicine is fundamentally about extending our lives and allowing us to be as healthy as possible while we live. Fighting aging pursues these objectives just as much as fighting a particular disease. If we could find some way of slowing aging so as to extend the human life span by 30% it would produce more benefit than curing any single disease. There is thus a moral imperative to significantly increase research into life extension.

The original research article in Nature
A summary of the research by Nature
A BBC article
An NPR article
A Daily Telegraph article

The Methusalah Mouse Prize

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