Aging as a Computing Problem

This week, Dr. Gordon Lithgow, associate professor at the Buck Institute, showed up in San Francisco and spoke to a packed house on aging, new technologies and why interdisciplinary connections are helping to unravel the mysteries of growing old. While politics often slows down progress, computer scientists can play a role in speeding things up.

In his talk, “The Reality of Age Research,” Lithgow told 100 members of the Ask a Scientist club that while the scientific community knows how to study aging much better than a few decades ago, the idea that aging is a disease is still very contentious. That’s because, if aging is a disease instead of a normal phase of life, that implies that something must be done to stop it — politically a lost cause in many cases, especially when applying for a federal grant.

That makes it difficult for aging researchers to do their work, especially since many are using expensive tools and computers. Yet Lithgow was adamant that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) “should really be called the ‘NIA,’ National Institutes of Aging.” The reasoning is that most deadly diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, are strongly correlated with age.

It’s in the Pamphlets

Of course, this may not come as a surprise to those whose doctors are fond of passing out reading materials.

Every year, my doctor gives me a pamphlet informing me that a woman at age 30 has a one in 2,212 chance of getting breast cancer; at age 40, it is one out of 235; at age 50 it is one out of 54; and at age 60 it is one out of 23.

Those are much better odds than winning the lottery or hitting it big in Vegas, so I usually take a look, try my best to stay healthy, and forget about it.

But that is not what the scientific or computing community ought to be doing.

Partnering Is Essential

Instead, the best and brightest ought to be looking for ways to fight age-induced disease, and one powerful weapon in this quest is computer-based biological modeling. Computer scientists can make a huge impact on this area of inquiry and should work toward partnering with scientists like Lithglow.

Aubrey de Grey, a well-known leader of the anti-aging movement, started out in computer science and is now applying that knowledge to biology. His example should be emulated.

Whether or not federal grant makers like it, aging research and practitioners are moving forward. The scientists at Buck Institute have found strong links between stress, oxidation and aging, bringing them closer to finding out how to improve healthspan (people’s healthy years), as opposed to lifespan. There are doctors like Dr. Eric Braverman in New York City, already practicing based on what science has provided so far.

It’s the Brain, Stupid

Walk into Braverman’s office and you will find all sorts of materials on how to stay healthy well into one’s later years. Braverman’s theory is that the body is as old as its weakest part and that the brain is more important than people realize.

For a substantial fee, his office will use the latest technology to scan an individual’s organs, give them a brain test, and analyze various other markers that can lead to disease. While the whole idea might seem esoteric, it is really the beginning of what trend-forecasters have been talking about for a long time: personalized medicine.

Although humans share much common DNA, each individual is different and requires a slightly different health program. It’s not yet possible to sequence everyone’s genome cheaply, but because of Moore’s law and the declining price of computing power, it should happen soon. In the meantime, for those who don’t want to trek to New York to improve their brain health, there are California companies like Posit Science that offer computerized brain exercises that can help individuals turn back the clock.

The idea that aging is a disease will someday be as common as an online game. In the meantime, important advances in fighting age-related disease are in the works and computer scientists are playing an important role. That role should be allowed to expand, without political interference.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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