Aging and Mortality

Can we reverse aging so that the really old are young again? Image source.

A somewhat recent article in Scientific America caught my eye: this one is about aging, or rather it is about reversing the effects of aging. This particular article describes research conducted at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in which the genes which control aging are tweaked to change older cells into a more embryonic-like state. This process reversed some of the effects of aging and also resulted in a longer lifespan for the mice on which this experiment was conducted.

By tweaking genes that turn adult cells back into embryoniclike ones, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies reversed the aging of mouse and human cells in vitro, extended the life of a mouse with an accelerated-aging condition and successfully promoted recovery from an injury in a middle-aged mouse, according to a study published Thursday [December 15, 2016] in Cell.

Time in a bottle. Image source.

Nor is this the only research into reversing the aging process. A group at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of the Harvard Medical School has reported that they reversed aging in a group of “severely aged” mice via a process of controlling telormere-shortening. Other groups have investigated the results of blood transfusions from young mice to old mice. Still others have been investigating the effects of NAD and Reservatrol on the aging processes driven by cells’ mitochondria. More still are examining the effects of diet and even of existing drugs.

While these studies have predominantly been conducted on live mice or on cell samples, the results of this research have been promising. In some cases, lifespans have been increased, in others muscles and various organs have been able to function as if younger. Much of this research is aimed at curing or staving off “old-age” ailments ranging from arthritis to dementia to strokes—and to that end we would all be better for these cures.

Belmonte, like some other anti-aging researchers, says his initial goal is to increase the “health span”—the number of years that someone remains healthy. Extending life span, the number of years someone remains alive, will likely take longer to achieve. Most major killers, including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s, are diseases of aging that become far more common past middle age. “This is not just a matter of how many years we can live but how well we can live the rest of our life,” Ocampo says.

However, it is also clear that some of the optimism behind this research as conveyed by these various popular science and news organs is that we may find a sort of fountain of youth, a way to stave off aging (and perhaps age-related death). As Karen Weintraub writes in Scientific America,

The new study suggests the possibility of reversing at least some of these changes, a process researchers think they may eventually get to work in living humans. “Aging is something plastic that we can manipulate,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, the study’s senior author and an expert in gene expression at Salk….

Some compounds such as resveratrol, a substance found in red wine that seems to have anti-aging properties in high concentrations, appear to delay epigenetic change and protect against damage from epigenetic deterioration, Sinclair says. These approaches can reverse some aspects of aging, such as muscle degeneration—but aging returns when the treatment stops, he adds. With an approach like the one Belmonte lays out in the new study, theoretically “you could have one treatment and go back 10 or 20 years,” he says. If aging starts to catch up to you again, you simply get another treatment.

This research seems to be in its nascent stages: perhaps it will deliver a means of reversing (or slowing) the aging process, or at the least its effect; and again, perhaps not. To the extent that this research really does enhance our quality of life by seeking to cure certain illnesses like muscle degeneration or dementia, it may be commended and its results celebrated (if successful). However, there are hints that this is not the final goal of the research. Certainly, extending our “health span” is a worthy goal, and so to some extent is extending a lifespan. But to do so indefinitely?

The pursuit of a fountain of youth and of life everlasting in this world can end in nothing save tragedy. We are meant to live forever, it is true: but not bound to this fallen world, nor any other of our own creation or design. This present world is but a shadow of the one we’re ultimately meant to call home, and it is a “vale of tears.”

We need look no further than, for example, the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien to see this illustrated [1]. The fact that men are meant to die and to part from this life for the true everlasting life is a theme in both his Lord of the Rings series and his Silmarillion. Consider, for example, that one effect of the Ring of Power is that it extends the life of its bearer unnaturally: Bilbo lived to a great old age but felt “stretched” and “thin,” while Gollum slowly lost his very self, both visibly and mentally. Or consider the story in the Silmarillion of the fall of the Númenoreans:

Image source

The Númenoreans began to yearn for the undying city that they saw from afar, and the desire of everlasting life, to escape from death and the ending of delight, grew strong upon them; and ever as their power and glory grew greater their unquiet increased. For though the Valar had rewarded the Dúnedain with long life, they could not take away from them the weariness of the world that comes at last, and they died, even their kings of the seed of Earendil; and the span of their lives was brief in the eyes of the Eldar. Thus it was that a shadow fell upon them: in which maybe the will of Morgoth was at work that still moved in the world. And the Númenoreans began to murmur, at first in their heart and then in open words, against the doom of Men, and most of all against the Ban which forbade them to sail into the West….

Manwë was grieved, seeing a cloud gather on the noon-tide of Númenor. And he sent messengers to the Dúnedain, who spoke earnestly to the King, and to all who would listen concerning the fate and fashion of the world [2]….

Atanamir was ill pleased with the counsel of the Messengers and gave little heed to it, and the greater part of his people followed him; for they wished still to escape death in their own day, not waiting upon hope. And Atanamir lived to a great age, clinging to his life beyond the end of all joy; and he was the first of the Númenoreans to do this, refusing to depart until he was witless and unmanned, and denying to his son the kingship at the height of his days. For the Lords of Númenor had been wont to wed late in their long lives and to depart and leave the mastery to their sons when these were come to full stature of body and mind….

Thus it came to as in time that the Númenoreans first made great settlements upon the west shores of the ancient lands; for their own land seemed to them shrunken, and they had no rest or content therein, and they desired now wealth and dominion in Middle-earth, since the West was denied. (From the Tale of Akallabêth, in The Silmarilion)

The rejection of death ultimately proves to be the undoing of the Númenoreans: the Island of Númenor is that world’s Atlantis, and its sinking brings an end to the Second Age. Long before this happens, the greater part of the men of Númenor have lost hope for the next life, and in their despair they lost even what little bliss is afforded in this one. Their “wise men” abandoned true wisdom in search for a means of reversing death: “Yet they achieved only the art of preserving incorrupt the dead flesh of men, and they filled all the land with silent tombs in which the thought of death was enshrined in the darkness.”

This obsession with death and with forestalling it leads these people to cease really living well, as they turn from lives of virtue and daring to lives of “revelry” and pursuing riches and pleasures. They also cease in their offering worship to Eru (God), and turn instead to gaining dominion over all other men.

Real repentance and atonement for this is not made by Númenoreans, and their island is lost. Their descendants on the “mainland” include those who remain loyal to the elves and angels, who are led by Elendil and his sons, whom together found the realms of Arnor and Gondor. Yet even these don’t really repent of the sins of the Númenoreans whole-heartedly: this is evidenced by Elendil’s son and heir Isildur’s refusal to destroy the Ring of Power when he has it in his grasp, preferring to keep it and to use its power for himself. Indeed, it is a distant descendant of Isildur, Aragorn, who finally is show to really repent of this way of life. He does this throughout the Lord of the Rings series by braving the passes of the dead, by refusing to take the Ring when it was in his power to do so, and ultimately by laying down his life before becoming “witless and unmanned.”

In our own world, the methods are different but the aims are much similar. In Tolkien’s imagined world it is magic which is meant to conquer death, whereas in ours it is technology [3]. But the goal remains the same, namely to forestall again and to conquer death. I would venture to add here that some of the “side-effects” of this are the same. It is certainly true that we do, on average, live longer now than in ages past, at least in the wealthy and “modernized” nations of the world. But do we live better than our forefathers?

I do not mean by that question, are we physically healthier and more free from pain or illness. Can we be said to be happier people, or more joyful? Are we more virtuous, more faithful, more grateful for our blessings, and do we make more of ourselves and what lives we are given than our ancestors? I contend that on the whole, the answer is “no.” Indeed, in some ways we appear to make less of ourselves than they did, while at the same time being given greater opportunities than they had. I do not think anyone now living would need to look especially far to find examples to support my claims. We may look from drug addiction and the overburdened prison system, to the young mother ushered to the nearest abortuary; or from the late twenty-somethings who have not the appearance nor the reality of maturing into adulthood, to the simple despondency of many people who are not “making it” in the world.

To all of this, I can but recall the wisdom once taught to every Catholic school child, and now forgotten or even outright discarded:

7. Q: Of Which must we take more care, our soul or our body?

A: We must take more care of our soul than our body.

8. Q: Why must we take more care of our soul than of our body?

A: We must take more care of our soul than of our body, because in losing our soul we lose God and everlasting happiness.

9. Q: What must we do to save our souls?

A: To save our souls we must worship God by faith, hope, and charity; that is, we must believe in Him, hope in Him, and love Him with all our heart.


[1] Fiction in general and fairy tales in particular do more than just stimulate our imaginations and entertain us. They can show to us the world as it really is, in the sense that by changing the setting, a good story allows us to gain insights which we might overlook in “real life.”As Miss Jean Elizabeth Seah has written in the conclusion to one of her columns on this site,

Far from useless trifles or evil explorations, fairytales are necessary in training a child to love the true, the good and the beautiful. They open our eyes to see with a sacramental vision, beholding with wonder the magic and mystery in God’s creation, which should not be reduced to mere scientific facts or cast aside with Puritan coldness. The way of faery is the way of virtue, learning how to love ourselves and others as co-pilgrims on the rocky road to the Heavenly City, where we may one day meet the Prince of peace and be welcomed as co-heirs to His Father’s kingdom.

Tolkien, for his part, excelled at this.

[2] The gist of the message sent by Manwë is that death was a gift bestowed on man by Ilúvatar, that is, by God. The Valar (angels dwelling in the world) could not undo this gift, nor did they fully understand it: but it must be accepted by man as a gift, and thus dying well and with hope in one’s heart for the next life is the proper attitude towards death:

You and your people are not of the Firstborn, but are mortal Men as Ilúvatar made you. Yet it seems that you desire now to have the good of both kindreds, to sail to Valinor when you will, and to return when you please to your homes. That cannot be. Nor can the Valar take away the gift of Ilúvatar. The Eldar, you say, are unpunished, and even those who rebelled do not die. Yet that it to them neither reward nor punishment, but the fulfillment of their being. They cannot escape, and are bound to this world, never to leave it so long as it lasts, for its life is theirs. And you are punished for the rebellion of Men, you say, in which you had small part, and so it is that you die. But that was not at first appointed for a punishment. Thus you escape, and leave the world, and are not bound to it, in hope or in weariness. Which of us therefore should envy the other?’

And the Númenoreans answered: ‘Why should we not envy the Valar, or even the least of the Deathless? For of us is required a blind trust, and a hope without assurance. knowing not what lies before us in a little while. And yet we also love the earth and would not lose it.’

Then the Messengers said, ‘Indeed the mind of Ilúvatar concerning you is not known the the Valar, and he has not revealed all things that are to come. But this we hold to be true, that your home is not here, neither in the Land of Aman nor anywhere within the Circles of the World. And the doom of Men, that they should depart, was at first a gift of Ilúvatar. It became a grief to them only because coming under the shadow of Morgoth it seemed to them that they were surrounded by a great darkness, of which they were afraid; and some became willful and proud and would not yield, until life was reft from them. We who bear the ever-mounting burden of the years do not clearly understand this; but if that grief has returned to trouble you, as you say, then we fear that the Shadow arises once more and grows in your hearts. Therefore, though you be Dúnedain, fairest of Men, who escaped from the Shadow of old and fought against it, we say to you: Beware! The will of Eru may not be gainsaid; and the Valar bid you earnestly not to withhold the trust to which you are called, lest soon it become again a bond by which you are constrained. Hope rather that in the end even the least of your desires shall have fruit. The love of Arda was set in your hearts by Ilúvatar, and he does not plant to no purpose Nonetheless, many ages of Men unborn may pass ere that purpose is made known; and to you it will be revealed and not to the Valar.’

[3] I am here making a deliberate division between science and technology. Science is ultimately about searching for knowledge, specifically (when we refer to modern science) it is searching for knowledge about nature. Technology is one possible application of science: the tools and techniques we use to work with or even to control nature.