It is more in the realm of probability that humans could in the near future live forever and never die. Barring deaths caused by natural or man-made causes, how realistic is this? Scientific evidence is increasingly pointing out this is likely to be so. Serious research is underway all over the world. But it is in the USA that such efforts are getting traction. We got curious when CNN America telecast a programme recently showing its viewers what is taking place and what is being done.
But let us begin by narrating briefly what humans have tried so far. In 1707, one Dr. Huseland of Germany first pointed out that a long life will “depend on a moderate diet that was rich in vegetables and short on meat and sweets.” He suggested “an active lifestyle, good care of your teeth, weekly bathing with lukewarm water, good sleep, clean air and being born to parents who themselves lived long lives.” This advice helped life expectancy to increase two and half years every decade. So every century humans lived 25 years longer. In the past decades the length of life was an average of about sixty. Today, it is much past seventy in the developed countries. Even in Bangladesh, many people are dying in the early seventies or in the late seventies.
So what is really happening? A prediction is there that the number of people over 100 years will increase tenfold between 2010 and 2050. There is indeed a genetic component to long life. But the range of improvements taking place has accelerated the process. These include better health care, advanced medical treatment to cure previously incurable ailments, public health measures like availability of clean water, better sanitation facilities and education.
The big question is why do we age at all? The simple answer is 'everyday our bodies suffer damage and don't repair perfectly. This accumulation of unrepaired damage is what causes age related diseases.' A jellyfish called Hydra is able to repair all the damage it suffers. Hydra allocates resources from its own body primarily towards repair. Humans do differently. They devote their efforts more towards reproduction. We, therefore, live short lives and die young. The trick will be to regulate repair instead of diverting it to fertilise and reproduce. So the critical aspect is to control the damages to the human body—then we need not die at all.
It is curious that all persons may not like to live forever. Who will like to receive birthday greetings for his 800th birthday? You will not be able to trace your relations and all your progeny. Even if you do, your successors may not be keen to greet you as they know that you are not likely to die ever. Interesting! Human affection, which is an important component of human life, will be lost. Devoid of affection you are likely to lose your moral compass. Ethical conduct would also go with the wind. Even your religious belief could go awry.
The CNN programme shows the various medical specialists now experimenting with immortality. One of the conundrums faced by them is the matter of DNA sequencing. Due to wrong sequencing by Nature, a message that should not have been in a particular place was unfortunately there. Why it was placed so is another matter. Thus, the message that a person will be afflicted with fatal disease like cancer or heart problems has already been written at birth. So, only by re-sequencing the DNA can scientists do away with the problem for posterity.
Science is also focusing on a phenomenon called telomeres. Whenever human cells divide, which they do profusely every moment, telomeres caps on human chromosomes, shortening it in size every time. This puts on a limit on the number of times your cells can reproduce themselves. Hydra of course does not experience telomere shortening. Unlike the human cells they live and continue.
The scientific community is increasingly experimenting with various other ways to prolong human life. One of them is human cloning. Through reproductive cloning new multi-cellular organisms can be created genetically, which can be identical to each other. The body is the same but the mind is not. Organs can be reproduced and placed in the original body. Another experiment is the use of what is called 'nanobots.' These are microscopic machines designed for fixing your body. Millions of such machines could be moving inside your body and fixing all your medical problems. Today, nanobots are used to repair optic nerves in blind hamsters.
The rush is on to see whether we can live forever. This will mean a sea change in our thinking and our lifestyle. Pundits say that such seminal development can take place in the next 50 years or so. Be prepared!
The writer is a former Ambassador and a commentator on current affairs.
E-mail: ashfaque303 @gmail.com