Sunday, Fareed Zakaria interviewed a physician on his GPS program, about slowing down aging.
The story isn’t up yet, and I didn’t get all the details down, but two points are worth mentioning.
One point concerned Jimmy Carter’s remission from metastatic melanoma in his brain. A new generation of drugs can turn off the surface markers on cancer cells that keep normal immune cells from fighting them. And these markers may be more generic in nature than previously thought. So a drug might be able to provide remissions for many different cancers (the supposed “cure for cancer”) than just one at a time.
Another point is research to use stem cells to prevent aging. Our own natural stem cells seem to stop generating new tissue at about age 25, which is when the brain reaches its biological summer solstice (having to do with both pruning and probably growing very specialized circuits connected to one’s own identity and abilities), so to speak. That’s good for “kids” in medical school. (That’s why people in their mid or late 20s often wonder how they could have been duped into irrational beliefs five to seven years before. Reid Ewing’s outgrowing body dysmorphia and desire to “advise his younger self” is an example, probably, of biological brain maturation – resulting in learning to “see around corners”, as Dr. Phil describes it.) The brain retains the “wisdom” of its previous growth well into old age, unless dementia sets in.
So the natural question is, whether stem cells could be used to slow or reverse the aging process, not only in the brain but in connective tissue, skin, and other organs. Could one’s own stem cells be harvested and saved? Would this become a technology of the rich?
But it is conceivable that these technologies, around a pivot point in medicine, could drastically prolong life spans. Imagine if the rate of aging from age 25 or so could be cut to 10% of what it is now (a premise of the alien visitors in the NBC series “The Event”).
It’s one thing to prolong life, but it is another to prevent or reverse profound disability or dependence. My own mother was very independent, and her coronary bypass surgery at age 85 in 1999 gave her about eight more good years. But then the decline was very difficult to deal with. Childless myself, I could not “afford” to make her reaching 100 a personal goal. Extending life of its own sake was anathema. She passed away after her 97th birthday in 2010.
It may be that stem cell infusions, and better health habits (exercise, hyper-running as in Tom Foreman’s book, avoiding pollution, and a vegan diet) could radically reduce aging and prolong productive life spans by decades. But the social and moral consequences are right now incalculable.