The quest for immortality has fascinated humanity for centuries. It was once a journey dotted with spells, potions and promises of charlatans, who sold the dream of eternal youth through dangerous mixtures of mercury, arsenic or assortments of herbs and pills, often with disastrous results. Today, in an era where science has made great strides, the idea of a true longevity elixir to age more slowly, or not at all, is no longer a mirage.
Behind this new hope, we find a host of passionate scientists and ambitious, and enthusiastic billionaires (as well as strongly interested). Joining them in this procession are ordinary people who are beginning to believe that the right behavior, accompanied by innovative drugs, could add years, perhaps decades, to their existence, allowing them to age healthily.
The journey not to grow old
Living to be 100 today is no longer a rare event, but remains an uncommon achievement. They were 23.000 in 1950, 110.000 in 1990, 150.000 in 1995, 209.000 in 2000, 324.000 in 2005, 455.000 and in 2009 573.000 in 2021. That's about 0.0071% of the world's population (in Italy 0.0305%, 4 times as much).
If recent life-prolonging research reaches its full potential, celebrating 120th birthdays could become the norm; and aiming to reach XNUMX could become a perfectly reasonable goal.
Advances in the "science of aging"
We are at an exciting crossroads in human history, where the ancient desire to escape the claws of aging is finding an echo even in the halls of scientific laboratories. This new dawn of discovery and experimentation promises not only a longer life, but years of quality, free from the clutches of diseases that traditionally accompany advanced age.
The incredible progress that can be glimpsed in the remedies to allow us to age healthily are all on the path to combating the causes of death, in particular infectious diseases. However, the process of aging itself, with its "systemic" ills (like dementia, for example) has not yet been slowed down. This time, the intention is precisely to tackle aging at its root, transforming biological decline from a fatality to a manageable condition.
The first serious steps
The journey to achieving longevity is revealed through a series of scientific explorations that aim to manipulate the biological processes associated with aging. Some of these are well known, such as the drastic calorie restriction, which, although it has shown promising results in laboratory animals, is considered too tall an ask for most people.
The emergence of drugs that affect relevant biological pathways appears to open a new window of possibilities. For example, the metformin, a drug approved to treat type 2 diabetes, and the rapamycin, an immunosuppressant used in organ transplants, are starting to gain attention as possible anti-aging agents.
A new horizon: senolytic drugs
The development of drugs that aim to eliminate "senescent" cells, those that the body no longer uses and which tend to accumulate with age, also raises hope. These cells, once essential for our growth and healing, become real "saboteurs" of our well-being as we begin to age, causing a series of malfunctions in nearby healthy cells.
I senolytic drugs, designed to target these wayward cells, represent an exciting frontier, although not without challenges. The dilemma lies in selectively eliminating these problem cells without interfering with other viable cells.
Epigenetic revolution: rejuvenating at the cellular level
At the moment, the "ram's head", the vanguard of longevity is probably in the epigenetic research. Academic and commercial research groups are studying how to rejuvenate cells and tissues by modifying epigenetic markers on chromosomes, which tell cells which genes to activate.
With age, these markers accumulate; removing them could return the cells of a 65-year-old body to a more youthful state, similar to that of a XNUMX-year-old. While calorie restriction and elimination of senescent cells could delay aging, it is argued that epigenetic rejuvenation could arrest or even reverse it.
Ambitious future, great challenges
The prospect of aging more slowly or even reversing aging is undoubtedly attractive. However, such a promise brings with it a number of ethical and practical questions. The social implications of an extremely prolonged life are equally complex. The interest of billionaires regarding startups that promote longevity raises legitimate concerns: will the benefits of these revolutionary discoveries be accessible to all or will they be the preserve of a small elite?
The ramifications of a much longer life, then, are vast and could completely rewrite social and economic norms. On the one hand, an extended working life could reduce gender disparities in the world of work, giving women more time to balance career and motherhood. On the other hand, a society of centenarians could marginalize young people and create a sort of youth cult. Again, the patient accumulation of capital, permitted by a longer life, could favor the emergence of one stronger middle classbut it might as well exacerbate existing inequalities.
Aging in slow motion, or in rewind: a future to explore together
The road to achieving immortality is littered with scientific, ethical and social challenges. However, the excitement surrounding these groundbreaking discoveries is palpable. Whether or not there will be a revolt against a ruling class that monopolizes anti-aging treatments, or whether society will be able to adapt harmoniously to this new reality, remains an open question.
Between our expectation of life and eternity there are many middle ways, and research aims to reach them one after the other. Stages of a journey that promises to reveal not only the secrets of growing old, but also the true essence of the human experience.