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Aging: A Disease Technologists Are Getting Ready to Tackle

By Sonia Arrison
Sep 16, 2005 5:00 AM PT

The world's oldest person is 115 years old, and while that might seem impressive, it's only the beginning. Advances in technology are poised to usher in longer and better life spans, a reality the general public has been slow to notice and the subject of a conference this weekend at Stanford University.

Aging: A Disease Technologists Are Getting Ready to Tackle

Sponsored by the Institute for Accelerating Change, the sold-out event promises speakers such as mathematician Vernor Vinge and inventor Ray Kurzweil, author of "The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology." Kurzweil discusses the accelerating future of artificial intelligence and technologies such as nanobots that can root out disease and keep us young. If that sounds too incredible, consider this statement:

"The United States is on the brink of a longevity revolution. By 2030, the number of older Americans will have more than doubled to 70 million, or one in every five Americans."

Significant Breakthroughs

The source is the U.S. government's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion -- not an organization one associates with radical thinking. Of course, by 2030, Kurzweil predicts that machines will be smart enough to fool people during a conversation into thinking they are humans, otherwise known as the Turing test. But advances in machinery are not the only way humans will increase their longevity; biotech also opens up amazing new possibilities.

Consider recent news from that sector. In a space of only three weeks, scientists announced three major breakthroughs in research with mice: the creation of a mouse that can grow back its organs should they be damaged or cut off, the discovery of a life-lengthening hormone produced by a gene called Klotho, and the identification of a gene called p63 that accelerates aging in mice. These are all crucial steps towards a cure to what should be properly called a disease: aging.

"Aging and cancer are two sides of the same coin. In one case, cells stop dividing and in the other, they can't stop dividing," said Alea Mills of Cold Spring Harbor laboratory, who led the p63 research. The concept should be straightforward enough, yet many people have a tough time accepting that aging is a disease.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a disease is defined as "condition in which the functioning of the body or a part of the body is interfered with or damaged." Cell damage involved in the process of aging clearly fits under this definition. Since that's the case, one might wonder why the very same agency sports a Web page titled "Healthy Aging." That's like saying "Healthy Disease" or "Healthy Cancer." The explanation for this logical inconsistency lies in our low-tech past, which we are quickly leaving behind.

Seeing the Future

Before recent times, the hope of ever beating aging belonged to the realm of science fiction. The best anyone could do to beat the system was to live on through one's children or professional works. Society became accustomed to this problem and worked it into our culture so that aging was viewed as a "natural" process that one must accept gracefully. Of course, tooth decay is natural too, but few people think it's a good thing now that we have the ability to fix it.

Society's long-held view of aging probably left us years behind in research, as few scientists want to be seen as chasing anything silly or impossible. Fortunately, those days are over, and numerous scientists are working on finding ways to extend human life by fighting aging.

The future is about to look radically different, and it is unclear whether Americans are prepared to face that change. It's time for everyone to leave behind the paradigm of the past, recognize aging for what it is, and move boldly into a better future.


Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute. She also serves on the Technology Advisory Board for the Acceleration Studies Foundation.


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