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Longevity Link Dump April 27, 2012

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Occasionally I remember that my original blog, long since lost to the unforgiving maelstrom that is the internet, was focused on healthy living and that what originally got me into transhumanism was an interest in longevity, anti-aging and overall healthy living research.  It’s still sort of a side interest for me but nowadays relegated to little more than trying to keep up with what’s actually going on in the field via science websites.  In that spirit here are a few interesting tidbits that have popped up in the last few weeks.  Give them a read if you missed them the first time around.
Dark chocolate helps prevent cardiovascular disease – Science has given you an excuse to eat chocolate.  What more do you want?

Berries may prevent cognitive decline among elderly – Berries too!

Oregano kills prostate cancer cells – If I could put oregano in everything I would.

Secret to staving off age related declines? Stay stimulated – You don’t use it, you lose it.

Island evolution may select for longer lived animals – Lack of predators seems to be the main driver but I was more interested in the role resource limitation plays.  Why?  Because it sounds familiar.

Salad may prevent oxidative damage after workouts – I hate salad.  I may desire immortality but I have my limits.

You may have noticed that a lot of these have to do with “natural” solution like eating a healthier diet.  Why have I neglected supplementation?  Well, mainly because I’m not a fan.  Part of that may be the fact that I had to sell them at one point in my life and am thus intimately familiar with the sheer amount of crap peddled by the industry.  More importantly though I just don’t think the concept is a sound one.  Given our current understanding of the human body and the relative primitive nature of our tools to fix it I’m not convinced that supplementation is a viable path to longevity, especially given the massive dosages that supplements are usually given in when compared to the concentrations of those same compounds found in food.  Call me a luddite if you want but occasionally I put my trust in evolution and life rather than human ingenuity.


Exercise Provides Benefits By Cleaning Up Metabolic Junk January 22, 2012

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Longevity research is a personal interest of mine (I use the word interest in the intellectual sense, rather than to imply I work on longevity).  As such I am always happy to see advances make their way into the news.  While the philosophical debates over whether extending human lifespan is desirable will continue regardless of what advances are made on the engineering front the best thing advocates can do to sway public opinion in our favor is to show first and foremost that it is feasible.

Exercise has long been known to promote health and longevity but up until fairly recently we haven’t had a very good idea why it does.  Oh sure, we’ve known that it reduces rates of chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke and diabetes and that people who exercise are more likely to live longer, healthier lives but the actual mechanisms still to a large degree elude us.  That seems to be changing though and a group of scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have taken another step forward.

What they’ve found is that exercise triggers a recycling system within our cells, a process known as autophagy:

Autophagy is like a “cellular garbage disposal,” says Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Beth Levine, a physician at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas who has been studying the process for more than a decade. The process works like this: First, a double membrane forms around the unwanted cargo inside the cell, enveloping it. This membrane then fuses with an organelle called a lysosome, which contains enzymes that rush in and break down the contents. The bits and pieces created by this process get recycled, providing raw materials for new structures or a burst of energy.

Autophagy keeps cells healthy by “getting rid of all of the obsolete and abnormal structures,” Levine explains. It also helps cells survive lean times. By cannibalizing unwanted proteins and other junk, the cells can get nutrients.

In the study mice which had been engineered to not increase autophagy rates due to exercise or starvation.  When compared to normal mice they exhibited lower physical performance and none of the accrued benefits of exercise.

The buildup of cellular junk is one of the mechanisms for aging outlined by Aubrey de Grey in his SENS approach so if nothing else it’s nice to see some vindication for him.  Similar research on fasting and drugs like rapamycin have also shown the importance autophagy plays in keeping our cells, and by extension the rest of us, healthy.  One study even showed that increased autophagy actually increases total life span compared to normal, though the effect is currently fairly small.  The holy grail of course would be a drug or treatment that mimics and improves upon the the effects exercise has on this process, something like the above mentioned rapamycin may be the starting point for.

Lifestyle Habits Of Long Lived Just As Bad As Everyone Else August 7, 2011

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Choose your ancestors well.  That seems to be the message of a new study coming out of the Einstein’s Longevity Genes Project and published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Overall, people with exceptional longevity did not have healthier habits than the comparison group in terms of BMI, smoking, physical activity, or diet. For example, 27 percent of the elderly women and an equal percentage of women in the general population attempted to eat a low-calorie diet. Among long-living men, 24 percent consumed alcohol daily, compared with 22 percent of the general population. And only 43 percent of male centenarians reported engaging in regular exercise of moderate intensity, compared with 57 percent of men in the comparison group.

“In previous studies of our centenarians, we’ve identified gene variants that exert particular physiology effects, such as causing significantly elevated levels of HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol,” said Dr. Barzilai, who is also professor of medicine and of genetics at Einstein. “This study suggests that centenarians may possess additional longevity genes that help to buffer them against the harmful effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.”

Of course currently there is no way to know whether or not you are one of the lucky ones so for the vast majority of us lifestyle choices still matter quite a bit.

Aubrey De Grey In The News Again July 6, 2011

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Despite the fact that the actual word isn’t something you’ll see all that much transhumanism is steadily marching into the mainstream.  Case in point; Aubrey de Grey has an article up about him, detailing both his current anti-aging research and his belief that very soon we will create a world without death.

A biomedical gerontologist and chief scientist of a foundation dedicated to longevity research, de Grey reckons that within his own lifetime doctors could have all the tools they need to “cure” aging — banishing diseases that come with it and extending life indefinitely.

“I’d say we have a 50/50 chance of bringing aging under what I’d call a decisive level of medical control within the next 25 years or so,” de Grey said in an interview before delivering a lecture at Britain’s Royal Institution academy of science.

Okay first things first.  I like Aubrey de Grey.  There was a time in my life when I wanted to make my way into anti-aging science largely because of his ideas and while I now focus my efforts on a very different field I still regard him as both a vanguard of transhumanism and a great opponent of the inevitability of death.  On top of that his SENS approach is one of the few approaches I’ve seen that seems like it has a fair chance in hell of working in the near future.

That being said I think he is wildly over-optimistic in his time frame.  Partly this is the result of futurists just having a bad track record overall of successfully predicting the future.  Partly this is wish fulfilment in action, with all these wonderful developments happening just in time to save de Grey and his generation (Ray Kurzweil has been accused of the same thing).   Finally,  it’s almost certainly partly the result of a good marketing strategy.  People tend to become a lot more motivated when you tell them that truly wonderful things are just around the corner, if only they’d donate a little more money or give a little more support to the cause.

My problem lies with the concept of the longevity escape velocity.  De Grey is quite fond of saying things like, “we will be able to cure the things 150 year olds die of before there are any 150 year olds.”  On the one hand I can see the reasoning behind the idea that rapidly advancing medical technologies will allow us to stay one step ahead of the Grim Reaper.  On the other hand that whole idea is assuming that Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns” (which isn’t actually law) applies not only to information technologies but to any form of technological progress.

In addition I take issue with the idea that we will be able to find cures for ailments before said ailments have presented themselves.  The improved predictive ability that will come with developments in synthetic intelligence coupled with our ever growing knowledge of the causes of aging and decrepitude may give us some ability to head-off certain problems before they begin to appear.  But even the mightiest SI’s will not be oracles and it seems to me that many of the potential problems that will confront the super-old will only become apparent when people start dropping dead.

I suppose we’ll find out in a few decades or so who is right and who is wrong.  And pride be damned, I hope I’m wrong.

Heart Repairs Itself After Heart Attack June 9, 2011

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Anyone who has or knows someone who has gone through a heart attack knows what a painful and traumatic event it is.  As the number one killer in the US and high up there among other developed countries finding a cure for heart disease would go a long ways towards combating premature death.  Well, some researchers at University College may be on the way to doing just that.

Heart muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, are irreparably damaged by heart attack. For the heart to continue functioning properly, the damaged cells must be replaced. Heart progenitor cells — cells that can form the various tissues that make up the heart, such as blood vessels and muscle — do exist, but in adults are not active enough to repair damage. So Paul Riley at University College London Institute of Child Health and his colleagues have found a way to wake them up.

The researchers examined the hearts of mice at various time points after the operation. They found heart cells expressing Wt1 just two days after the injury. The cells were initially in the heart’s outer layer, but by two weeks after surgery they had moved inside and clustered around the site of the injury. The cells had also changed in size and shape, and looked just like cardiomyocytes.

Awesome.  Now if they can just figure out how to make the human body turn the switch on and off so to speak.

Oldest Living Couple Has 190 Years Between Them May 8, 2011

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Who says love is wasted on the young?  Okay I’m not sure anyone has said that but who cares.  This is such a lovely story.

The couple, Rose Pollard and Forrest Lunsway, are 90 years and 100 years old respectfully and have been dating for thirty years.  Why did they wait until now to tie the knot?

The wedding date holds double significance for Forrest, as it was also his 100th birthday. In fact, that was part of the deal: both were widows and didn’t wish to remarry when they met on a blind date in 1983. But one day, the question came up – and Forrest proposed on the spot. Rose’s response: “I told him, ‘I’ll marry you on your 100th birthday.’ And I did.”

It must be fate that on the same day I write about the amortal phenomena I get perhaps the perfect example of it.  These people are not content to sit around and wait for death to come.  They’re not interested in the fact that people their age aren’t “supposed” to do this sort of thing.  They’ve found someone they love and dammit they’re going to enjoy their lives together.  Best wishes to both of them!

Are You An Amortal? May 8, 2011

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An interesting article up in the Observer takes a  look at a rapidly growing subset of the elderly: the amortals.   Divorced from traditional notions of age-appropriate behavior these are the type of people who go hiking Mount Everest for their 70th birthday or who decide to marry partners 40 years their junior (looking at you Hugh Hefner).

So much of the talk regarding longevity revolves around the technical solutions to the problem that it actually quite refreshing to see people discussing both the type of person who can successfully live long into their golden years.  First and foremost is the fact that these people, whatever their age, do not see themselves as old.  No age for them is too old to start a business or enter a new relationship and retirement might as well be a dirty word.  In fact many of these people see the current effort to raise to retirement ages in a very different way than most of us:

Retirement isn’t a proposition that appeals to amortals unless life after work promises to be busier and better than the life before. And the impulse to keep working isn’t such a bad thing, given the changing profile of the world’s population. In Europe, the 60-pluses are projected to make up 37% of the population by the middle of this century. In some countries, two-fifths of citizens will be in their seventh decade or beyond…

Amortals are more inclined to celebrate the lifting of compulsory retirement ages and to deplore the ageism that seriously disadvantages older job seekers.

That brings us to a disturbing fact.  Society is not prepared to deal with large numbers of amortals.  Everything about us from our economies to our social benefits is based on the idea that people stop working once they reach 60-65.  This worked very well 50 year ago when the general trend after retirement was to take up golf for a few years and then die but it is completely outdated in an age where the average person has at least a decade, and most likely quite a bit more, to look forward to after the pension checks start coming in.  One only needs to look at the debt crises afflicting most of the developed to see the first waves battering our shores.

It’s not all doom and gloom though.  The fact that people are living longer means at least one very good thing; people have more time to enjoy their lives.  This is one thing I greatly appreciated about the article.  Too often in the transhumanist community I feel like our desire for longevity is little more than an adolescent urge to thumb our nose at death, to spit at the Grim Reaper (see Ray Kurzweil).  It is wonderful to see people for whom the desire to live is borne out of nothing more than “joie de vivre.”  People like this are living counter-arguments to the tired objections one sees whenever the debate over immortality is brought up;  “but won’t we get bored?”, “who wants to be old forever?”

Attitudes like that are not only poorly reasoned (no transhumanist advocates growing decrepit) but are also obsolete.  They were born in a time when the lines separating the young, the mature and the elderly were clearly demarcated.  That is no longer the case.  As our lifespans lengthen we are coming to understand that no age is too old to better ourselves, to set plans for our future, to set out on a new adventure in life.  So I ask again, are you an amortal?

Jack LaLanne Dies at 96 Years Old January 23, 2011

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This may seem to be a little out of my area of expertise but I truly feel the need to take note of this man.  I was born long after Jack LaLanne’s television show was off the air and only learned of him through the occasional story my parents or grandparents would tell.  Unlike some I can’t say that I was profoundly influenced by him in any great way but I was always impressed with the way he handled himself.

Jack LaLanne was a fitness icon decades before fitness was the monster industry that it is today.  At a time when athletes were still being told not to lift weights for fear it would make them slow and muscle-bound (no, really) LaLanne was encouraging people to watch their diet, exercise regularly and live a healthy lifestyle.  It’s probably hard for many of us to understand just what a groundbreaking message this was but to say he helped shaped the culture of the modern fitness industry is like saying that Joe Frazier had a decent left hook.

More than that though he seems to have genuinely cared about helping people get in shape and start thinking about their health.  His advice was simple, eat right and exercise, and he never succumbed to any of the gimmicks that populate the industry today.  On his show he would showcase simple exercises that could be done with nothing more than a towel and a chair.

Finally like all truly great icons he practiced what he preached, something which his death at the age of 96 can attest to.  To transhumanists this is probably the thing we will remember him for.  For all our focus on emerging technologies it’s important to remember that the best things we can for our own longevity right now is no more complicated than what Lalanne taught.

To Jack LaLanne

Gene In Kidney May Predispose You To Heart Disease January 23, 2011

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Next up in our series “Nature is COMPLICATED” (there is no series, I just made that up) a study out of the NIH has for the first time found a gene variant in the population that actually seems to cause heart disease.  The kicker?  The gene in question is not even expressed in your heart.

The unexpected results highlight the advantage of performing genome-wide studies to find DNA sequence variants associated with disease.

“I was surprised by the finding,” says Thomas P. Cappola, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, also a lead investigator on the study. “This is a good example of how taking unbiased approaches to study human disease can lead you to unexpected targets.”

Studying three groups of Caucasian patients with heart failure, they found one DNA sequence variant that was common in all the groups and was actively involved in making an important protein for the body. A single change in the DNA sequence of a gene called CLCNKA leads to a change from arginine to glycine in the 83rd amino acid of the protein. This protein makes up part of a kidney channel responsible for controlling the secretion of chloride ions into the urine, an important process in maintaining the proper balance of salt and water in the body.

That single amino acid change reduced the channel’s ability to shuttle chloride ions across the cell membrane by about half. Dorn hypothesizes that a result of this reduction could be elevated levels of a hormone called renin in the blood. Renin is produced in the kidney and is the first signal in a cascade that can damage the heart. This opens the possibility of helping people who have the variant reduce their risk of heart failure with drugs commonly used to treat high blood pressure, including ACE-inhibitors and aldosterone blockers.

Interesting for a few reasons.  One is obvious, this study has the potential to lead to novel treatments for reducing the risk of heart disease, which as the number one killer in America is something we desperately need to do.  It’s simple utilitarian calculation; reducing risk will not only reduce or eliminate the suffering on those who would other wise have contracted heart disease but will also work to reduce health care costs and ease the burden said costs are placing on society at large.

Second, and more relevant to this blog, it showcases one of the difficulties we face in attempting to increase human longevity.  Namely, nature is COMPLICATED and our bodies are no exception.  As Neil Shubin put it the human body is essentially a retrofitted fish and regardless of how far we’ve come in our evolutionary history we are still bound by that ancestral framework.  As such, attempting to artificially lengthen the human lifespan by figuring out which gene does what and tweaking it appropriately is going to be absurdly difficult.  What once coded for scales may now code for skin and a single gene may do multiple things depending on when and how it is expressed.

This is why Aubrey deGrey’s SENS approach makes a lot of sense, cleaning up the damage of aging rather than attempting to fix the underlying causes.  Whether it ends up working or not is of course another story since no matter what we do we can’t escape the fact that biological life is messy.

Kazahkstan’s President Calls For Elixir Of Youth January 12, 2011

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Yes I know he’s an autocrat who only cares because he thinks it will let him rule forever.  It’s still cool to have the leader of a nation speak this favorably of longevity research:

Cleopatra may have bathed in asses’ milk to preserve her youth but Nursultan Nazarbayev, the autocratic president of Kazakhstan, wants nothing less than an elixir of life to keep him going.

Not satisfied with 19 years in charge of the gas-rich central Asian state, Nazarbayev urged scientists today to unlock the secret to immortality.

The 70-year-old leader stressed in a speech that a new scientific research institute in the capital Astana should study “rejuvenation of the organism,” as well as “the human genome, production of human tissue and creation of gene-based medicines”.