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Aubrey de Grey doesn’t want you to die

Introducing Aubrey De Gray, Chris Anderson does something a bit unusual, making it clear that De Gray is an extremely controversial thinker, sometimes dismissed as being unscientific. He goes on to explain that DeGray believes that people could live to be a thousand years old.

De Gray slightly corrects this impression. What he wants to do is not keep frail people alive for a thousand years – he wants to restore people to “increased vitality and robustness”. Humans will face the choice of ending their lives earlier, or facing a “permanently low risk of dying soon”.

Why does De Gray think ageing is so important? He argues that there’s no difference between saving life and extending lives. “Ageing does not just kill people – it kills them really, really horribly.” 150,000 people die of old age each day. Ageing kills 90% of the people in the US.. and keeping them alive a few more years costs $200 billion a year, in the US alone.

Inageing was inevitable, and so ghastly, that we needed to put it out of our minds. But this may now be changing – De Gray thinks it is.

Why do we die? Metabolism causes pathology. You can try to make metabolism “cleaner” – gerontology – but we don’t understand enough about our own metabolism to do a reasonable job of tinkering with the processes. We can attempt to help people live better with the damage – geriatrics – but the damage keeps accumulating, and eventually kills people.

How do you make a car last for 50 years? Either you can build it like a tank, or you can take very good care of it. When cared for and repaired by enthusiasts, cars can last indefiniately. Vintage cars die because people don’t care about them.

De Gray is interested in an “engineering approach”. It suggests letting metabolism “lay down damage”, then correcting it with a variety of techniques. He lists a set of different techiques to combat basic cellular damage, arguing that many of these techniques are “right around the corner” – in trials in mice, possibly usable in humans in 10 years. Hence, this isn’t a “research” project, but a “development” project.

Addressing his critics directly, De Gray explains that there’s a common pattern – “They ignore you, then laugh at you, then oppose you and then claim they agreed all along.” He argues that the people who criticize him have a vested interest – they’re gerontologists who compete with him for funding and will have a tough time getting funded if we can repair the damage they’re trying to stop from happening.

De Gray tells us “I want to get middle-aged mice to live three times as long as they otherwise would.” This means a 10 year project that he’s now attempting to raise funding for.

(In a somewhat odd turn), De Gray ends by invoking 9/11 – pointing to the people who helped wrestle the hijacked airliner out of terrorist hands, crashing it into a field rather then into the Pentagon. The people who led the “passenger revolt” weren’t trying to save their own lives – they were trying to save the lives of many more people on the ground. This, De Gray suggests, is what he’s trying to do – save lives, even if he doesn’t save his own.

11 thoughts on “Aubrey de Grey doesn’t want you to die”

  1. I read something about this a few months ago on an in-flight magazine, and actually mentioned it to part of my cohort at CPE last week. I have strangely mixed feelings about the notion of living for centuries. On the one hand, I would like to feel ensured of a long and healthy life; there’s so much I want to do! On the other hand, I have a vested (pastoral) interest in sanctifying the transition-points of the human life, up to and including death, so I’m a little bit uncomfortable with the perspective which presumes that aging and death are necessarily negative things which require correction…and I worry about the increased social stratification that might arise from some segments of society having access to longevity treatments, and other segments of society (or parts of the world) not.

  2. Seconded… I also worry when people talk of curing death, instead of healing or coming to terms with it. And he addresses (here at least) only the life of the body, not the life of the mind.

    I only know rough snippets about this, but children’s minds are malleable. They have to be, to come from a dark, silent place and absorb a world and a culture, colors and patterns and communication; young children learn languages, for instance, without consciously trying. At 15 or 20 years old, the mind begins to settle. Doesn’t reshape and regrow as fluidly: stops letting the world shape it and begins to figure out its shape, matures.

    We lose some kinds of learning. I think we gain others; I don’t know whether that idea is science or storytelling. Does the mind continue to grow, or does it become set, like rubber in a mold? We don’t stop gaining experience… but we do stop growing neurons.

    If my body could stay fit and healthy while my mind grew old, that pattern, too, would be frightening. Would I be allowed to get tired? Would I wind up with the martian/numenorian responsibility of determining when to die? How many people I loved would I have to outlive?

  3. I got a phone call from my mother (82) this week to tell me that she’d spilled hot oil on herself while cooking – and that she refused to call a doctor because they might put her in a nursing home against her will. Aging is not a theoretical misery – it’s very very real and horrific – it is truly cruel and unusual punishment. If anyone wants to experience the frailty of age in an eventual era when aging is cured, they can always refuse to take the treatments and get old…and then decide if they’d like to stay that way or turn the clock back. Today there’s no choice whatsoever and I believe that will change. By the way, my mother is moving in to our new house purpose built for her and her family (us).

    There are no “people” – only persons. These persons spend billions trying to get rid of the exterior evidence of aging – primarily to prevent the growing bigotry and prejudice that they find gradually heaped up against them. Bigotry, prejudice, torture. hmmm – at least let’s give people options. I’d take this over flying cars any day.

  4. The choice is what healthy life extension is all about: the choice not to suffer, the choice not to be forced into frailty and death.

    As for all the objections raised, try replacing “healthy life extension medicine” with “heart medicine” or “dialysis machinery” and see how you feel about making the same arguments there. Are you asking for government employees and politicians (which is what most folk seem to mean by “we”) to force people to die by suppressing medical technologies? Should those same people be suppressing any new medicine on the ground on unequal distribution, thereby destroying all progress?


    We already do a great deal to shift the goalposts of life and healthy life span; it seems strange to be waving arms around about it now.

  5. I don’t mean in any way to dismiss the pain of aging or of illness. I lived two summers with my grandmother while she forgot simple things and grew angry with herself, when she reread the same newspaper and could climb stairs. She had time enough to come to some kind of peace with it; she didn’t die angry. That isn’t always true.

    I can hardly imagine not being able to walk, to hold a pen, to sign my name. In college, I cooked dinner for a woman who could not. She had more grace about it than anyone I know. One day she looked at me across the table and said, I could live too long.

    Aging has not always meant bigotry, and it dosn’t always now. Many people respect it. Easy to say, I know, when I haven’t had to try it. If we treat the old with anger or fear, will changing the outward signs of aging change us? That’s a real question. If we end age, we won’t have ended pain.

  6. Kate – We’ve ended many terrible things such as hunger and diseases – and with each change new challenges arose. No question about it. Famine used to be the greatest killer of those who survived childbirth…but when fertilizer entered service I’m sure the first person who used it was considered a maniac to put crap on things people were supposed to eventually eat! When Nicholas Appert invented food preservation (bottling and later canning) around 1811, there was a huge unintended consequence. Famines began to end…eventually leading to higher population and the new epidemic of obesity. Difficult problems, but who would choose to return to the days of famine and diseases of malnutrition?

    The key thing to hope for is broadened options. I never had to concern myself with polio. I thank the generation that did this for me. My children have no cavities. Teeth will be regenerated withing 5 years experimentally…these things are going to happen. The so called debate that is starting today about the defeat of aging will seems so so foreign in the future. Just as the debates about using bovine vaccine to eliminate smallpox were considered to be an abomination against god and man…but – smallpox is gone…and as a species we got over the initial repugnance of vaccines.

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  8. I’ve read what people here write about accepting death and dignity.

    Ultimately, if I may loosely quote Dr. Greg House, there is never dignity in death, no matter how you go about doing it. You start out a human, you end up a rotting hunk of meat. Beautifying it doesn’t change that grim underlying truth.
    Same goes for frality, which some people here seem to confuse with age. In a world where age does not imply frality, sickness and disability, there would be nothing wrong with it. Consequently it’s not the age we’re interested in kicking off. It’s the wear and tear of our shells.

    I look at coming to terms with dying as an utter waste of time and energy. If it’ll happen it’ll happen regardless of whether you came to terms with it or not.

    On the other hand, I look at doing something that might prevent it as a much more meaningful way to spend that same energy./-*

  9. The “sanctifying of transition-points in life” that the first poster pointed out here is a very common objection to radical life extension. It is also one that I completely do not understand and relate to. Having to live one’s life according to “transition-points” based on a fixed time schedule is analogous to living according to the dictates of a time clock.

    I hate time clocks.

    Developing a cure for aging is analogous to smashing that time clock with a sledge hammer. Something I look forward to doing with glee. I want to live my life on my choices, not by the dictates of an externally set time clock.

    If I want to start a biotech company in Taiwan, a software company in Singapore, or just hang out on Boracay Island or the Pacific Northwest; I want to do this without regards of “time” constraints. Maybe i want to do all four of these things. Maybe, I want to do a hundred more things and then plus. This is what radical life extension is all about.

    It is about freedom and choice to do the things you want (without that bothersome time clock telling you that you have to give it up).

    When i lived in SoCal in the late 80’s, I discovered that I really, really like freedom and openess. I made the same discovery again in Asia during the 90’s. I would never sacrifice freedom and openess to any other value, because no other value means anything to me.

  10. Kate,

    The notion that the brain stops producing neurons after age 20 or so has been falsified. There are stem cells in the brain that allow for regeneration (ablate slowly) through out life. Also, SENS (which is Aubry’s thing) and stem-cell regenerative medicine is about restoring the mind (and body) to the same plasticity of youth.

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