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Gerit Quealy

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Aging is Old Hat

Posted: 07/26/10 03:51 PM ET

Summer movies usually mean blockbusters. But the new film To Age or Not to Age belongs more in the realm of myth busters.

Sidestepping long lines for Inception, I traded in Leonardo DiCaprio for Dr. Leonard Guarente of the Glenn Laboratory for the Science of Aging at MIT, explaining how research is bringing dreams of a fountain of youth closer to reality.

Sexy stuff? Well, yes. Wriggling worms and a protracted reproductive cycle aside, I've found scientists more and more sexy (with the exception of my high school chemistry teacher). When what emanates from the gleaming bald pate of Dr. Guarente illuminates the hard science behind staying young, you can feel your pulse quicken.

The cast includes a phalanx of scientists, cells, mutant genes, a cameo by a 405-year-old clam that was born the year Hamlet was first performed on the public stage, and a parrot. The plot? "A profound mystery" says Gordon Lithgow Ph.D. of the Buck Institute, but also part science fiction, part reality show.

Not to mention whodunit. We're essentially talking about the death of aging. And how exactly the scientists are going to do it. "It's huge," agrees writer/director Robert Kane Pappas in a brief conversation. "I had to do a sort of Cliff's Notes to touch on everything."

And he does, but the film unfolds gently, so it's easy to miss how packed it is with information. Research on cancer cells that don't die, longer lives for monkeys through caloric restriction, longer lives for mice through the consumption of resveratrol, a compound from grape skin that's been touted as a sort of Fountain of Youth by the mainstream press -- are all spotlighted. (Pappas admits he is taking resveratrol. As are many of the other scientists.)

"It's the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong," says a character in Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia.

This sentiment perfectly summarizes the content of the documentary, even though it by no means glosses over the content as a cheery discovery of Shangri-La. Pappas explores the many facets that delaying aging and living longer entails -- the health care system, big pharma, disease prevention, the financial impact, and religious/existential questions -- one of the scientists who made a breakthrough discovery with yeast has become a priest -- all of which are integrally connected to extending our lifespan.

Aging was never considered a valid line of inquiry because it was just assumed people were like cars -- you got older, you wore out, you died. Beginning in the late 1980s, though, scientists in disparate fields started to see things differently. Still, as Dr. Stephen Austad, a cellular biologist at the Barshop Institute at the University of Texas, points out in the film, they've had to tread gingerly due to the legacy of snake-oil salesman. Aging science has "a long, inglorious history of quacks and charlatans," he laughs.

Dr. Cynthia Kenyon, a molecular biologist at University of California San Francisco, remembers it making her sad watching worm genes get old; that led her to alter one single gene (DAF-2) in the worm which doubled its lifespan, helping it be younger, more active and also disease-resistant.

At Dr. Guarante's MIT lab, a chance discovery of an anti-aging gene in yeast, called SIRT-1, could also help treat degenerative diseases such like Alzheimer's and diabetes, further removing obstacles to a longer life.

It's easier to change lifespan than previously thought, notes Dr. Austad. "We already know how to make animals live 25-40% longer." But no one really know what all this means for humans... yet.

Gerontology expert Aubrey DeGrey, long dismissed as a fringe thinker in the field because he doesn't think we should have to age at all, believes it will be a short leap from a 150-year lifespan to 1000. He notes that, with the speed of the current research, "If you're only 50, ... there's a chance you could pull out of the dive." He is beginning to be considered more mainstream.

The current rift between DeGrey's philosophy and the other scientists, records Pappas, is that DeGrey wants to get rid of aging altogether, while they just want to extend a healthy lifespan. Dr. Guarente believes that drugs to address our repair mechanisms will be available in the next five years.

So, is our current idea of aging just a misconception? "Well, there are things we know and things we think we know," Dr. Guarante said sagely. "That the Earth revolves around the sun is not going to change." (Cold comfort to poor Galileo.) But lifespan, he tells me, is an open question.

Discussion groups of 20-somethings to 60-somethings, so identified, pore over the implications of a longer lifespan: what will I look like? I don't want to if I'm going to be decrepit, what about energy levels?, the happiness factor... A 50-something woman remarks that this country is obsessed with beauty and aging. One provocative comment by a Southampton, NY artist posited that people only want to live longer if they haven't accomplished all that they hoped, but it "doesn't mean they would do it if they were given another 200 years."

The 95-year-old Madelyne said she missed her dance partner, her husband, who died many years before. She wouldn't mind seeing another century, but if she was going to die, she wanted to die on the dance floor.

The film is a waltz of big personalities, big ideas, complex questions and compelling science. There's so much in it, one viewing isn't really enough to absorb it all. So if it doesn't rival Inception at the box office, it should have a healthy extended lifespan in the Netflix queue.

Another version of this post originally appeared on StyleGoesStrong.com.

 

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