Queen asked the question, Oasis quite fancied it but Lemmy from Motorhead didn’t want to. Living forever is something which has captured the imaginations of scientists and artists, well...forever.
Research into the process of ageing hasn’t quite found the key to immortality, but it is revealing the way our bodies change over time and what factors contribute to longer and healthier lives.
Dr Andre Pires da Silva is an evolutionary biologist in the Department of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick, whose research looks at the genetics of a species of roundworm and the length of their lives, with a view to gaining insight into human aging. He has found some astonishing results.
Dr Pires da Silva explains: “Working in laboratory conditions we use nematode worms as a model organism to understand genetic processes involved in ageing. Model organisms have simple systems so we can try and isolate the processes we are interested in studying. The worm we work with is a tiny organism found in the soil which eats bacteria. In normal circumstances it has a life span of two weeks.
“We have found we can select genes to extend the lifespan of the worm, but with this comes a proportional extension of old age. So the worms may live longer but we are seeing a longer period of poor health at the end of life.
“One of the interesting aspects we are studying is the relationships between these worms and their gut bacteria. We have found that by introducing a certain strain of bacteria found naturally in their environment and which they would normally be eating, we can extend the worm’s life by 50%. Interestingly, this extended lifespan is also healthier – with the symptoms of old age and disease appearing suddenly and only briefly at the end of life.”
Dr Pires da Silva’s research is, at this stage, on roundworms, but it does make you think about the possibilities for humans and it does throw up all sorts of interesting questions for society. If we could find to key to living longer, how much longer would we want to live – and what would the price be? Would you prefer to live for 100 years in good health – or 800 years with a long period of frailty and poor health?
A new outlook on life
Dr Daniel Sgroi is a behavioural economist at Warwick who is attempting to understand how mood and wellbeing can affect behaviour – and how this may effect decision making. Living for 800 years certainly would throw up a new outlook on life.
He says: “Having an extended lifespan would have all sorts of impacts for human societies, for example, how patient would people be in their jobs or in their relationships if they thought they had centuries more to live? Would people want to work for vastly longer, or expect to have several centuries of retirement?
“Populations would grow and the age distribution would change beyond recognition. Society and the economy would have to change to reflect the increased age and size of the population as well as the different preferences and opinions generated by a radically different age structure. Even notions of history might have to change with the distant past potentially being within human memory. Relationships would likely change in all spheres of life: economic, social and political.
“Of course issues like whether human memory could accommodate 800 years of life or whether mental health and physical health could improve to match higher life spans would matter a great deal. The bottom line is that given the number of unknowns it is hard for us to do any more than speculate.”
A lifetime’s work
But even if scientists like Dr Pires da Silva can’t find the secret to everlasting life, they may be able to find a way for us all to live a healthy life. But is it something that would benefit humankind?
Dr Pires da Silva concludes: “Our research may well turn up a probiotic which could help us live healthier for longer. This sounds ideal, but I know there are new ramifications attached to even this. Say scientists can produce a magic pill which would give you 80 healthy and strong years, would governments require us all to take it? Would people opt out?
“We are nowhere near fully understanding the process of ageing though – in nematodes or humans. It is certainly going to take a lifetime’s work.”
26 November 2018
Andre Pires da Silva is a research biologist working at Warwick's Department of Life Sciences, using an integrated approach, combining developmental genetics, cell biology, genomics and mathematical modeling to understand how organisms evolve to changes in the environment.
Daniel Sgroi is a behavioural and experimental economist in the Department of Economics at Warwick, working at the borders with psychology, attempting to understand how psychological traits, cognitive biases, mood, language and beliefs affect behaviour.
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