Have Scientists Found a Way for People to Live Longer?

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Tina Madani Kia
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Everything and everyone ages. But scientists have made discoveries about our cells and circulatory and immune systems that could potentially one day be used to increase human lifespans.
Mother and baby lab mice
insight about different ways to rejuvenate organs as they age. Mother and baby lab mice (Pogrebnoj-Alexandroff [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons ).

In this crazy and unpredictable world, the one thing you can rely on is aging. Whether you like it or not, every day you become slightly older than you were yesterday. Everything ages, even that apple you forgot to take out of your backpack!

After humans and animals hit puberty, their physical and cognitive (mental) abilities gradually decline. Their chances of getting numerous diseases and ultimately dying increases the older they get, too. That’s why scientists are particularly interested in research that can possibly be used to prolong human lives.

Are you someone who would like to live a really long time? If so, you’re in luck. In recent years, there have been quite a few exciting discoveries that may someday be used to increase your lifespan! Let’s learn about some of them.

Can blood transfusions help people live longer?

The life-prolonging technique that has been most thoroughly researched is blood transfusions. Scientists joined the circulatory system of an old mouse to that of a young mouse. They found that this “young” blood made the old mouse’s organs stronger. Scientists think that the tissues of the old mice are regaining functions that they may have lost through the process of aging. In other words, the “young” blood is reversing some of the effects of aging!

Can scientists do this in humans? Not exactly. There are some serious ethical questions about where the “young blood” would come from. But studies like these give scientists insight about different ways to rejuvenate organs as they age.

Can improving immune systems help people live longer? 

Another technique that could help humans live longer is improving the immune system. Like many parts of your body, your immune system is also less effective as you get older. That’s why older people are more likely to get sick from common illnesses such as the flu (short for influenza) or pneumonia. The number of people who die from the flu goes up in older age groups. Between 1990 and 1999, 3 484 people older than 65 died of the flu in Canada. Meanwhile, during that same time, only 155 people aged 50-64 died of the flu

One study looked at a pharmaceutical compound called everolimus. This compound improved the effectiveness of the flu shot in people older than 65 . It did this by inducing higher levels of antibodies in the subjects’ blood. Antibodies are molecules in your blood that attack foreign invaders and help keep you from getting sick.

Elderly woman receiving a flu shot/Femme âgée recevant un vaccin antigrippal.
Elderly woman receiving a flu shot (fstop123 via iStockphoto).

Can scientists target cells to make people live longer? 

Another technique with anti-aging effects involves targeting senescent cells. (See the video that follows this paragraph). These are cells in the body that continue to live but have stopped dividing. Typically, when cells divide, pieces of DNA on the ends of chromosomes called telomeres get shorter. This is okay, because telomeres don’t actually code for any useful DNA. However, after many rounds of replication, telomeres become very short. At that point, cells may become senescent.

The older you get, the more senescent cells you have. Research has shown that these cells release chemicals that can harm the cells surrounding them. For example, in an experiment, researchers gave a drug that targets senescent cells to a group of mice.The drug caused the senescent cells to self-destruct.  Researchers compared these mice to a control group (mice that did not get the drug). The mice that got this drug had healthier kidney functions, better fur coats and more energy than the control mice.

Can scientists cure aging? 

So do these treatments actually increase one’s lifespan? Or do they simply make aging animals healthier? Scientists are still researching this question, and it’s an important one to keep in mind. It might seem obvious that healthier organs and body systems naturally lead to longer life spans. But this idea still needs to be verified by future studies.

But let’s say scientists were to discover a drug that really could expand one’s lifespan. How much longer could a person taking this drug live? By manipulating certain genes, scientists have managed to increase the lifespan of worms by eightfold. Could we see the same effects in humans?

Likely not. Research has shown that more simple organisms, such as worms or yeast, are affected the most by longevity treatments. In humans, it is more likely that we would see much smaller improvements. This is because human genes are more complicated. Also, human health and longevity and can be affected by a variety of different lifestyle factors. Science does tend to advance quickly, though. New discoveries are made every day. Who knows, by the time you’re old and wrinkly, 100 may be the new 80!

Did you know?

Turritopsis dohrnii, otherwise known as the immortal jellyfish, is able to live forever. Once it has reached maturity, it transforms itself to a younger age!

Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish.
Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating

  • Would you like to live longer? What would you do with your extra time?
  • There is the expression, “age is just a number.” Do you agree or disagree with this notion? Why or why not? Is aging necessarily a bad thing? What are the benefits of aging?  
  • What do you think your life would be like if you got to be much older due to scientific intervention and other people that you knew had average life spans? 

Connecting and Relating

  • Would you like to live longer? What would you do with your extra time?
  • There is the expression, “age is just a number.” Do you agree or disagree with this notion? Why or why not? Is aging necessarily a bad thing? What are the benefits of aging?  
  • What do you think your life would be like if you got to be much older due to scientific intervention and other people that you knew had average life spans? 

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • What implications might extending people’s lifespan have on society and the environment? 
  • How much do you feel aging is within our personal control? Can we really eat, exercise and medicate our way out of old age? Why or why not?

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • What implications might extending people’s lifespan have on society and the environment? 
  • How much do you feel aging is within our personal control? Can we really eat, exercise and medicate our way out of old age? Why or why not?

Exploring Concepts

  • What are telomeres? How are they involved in the aging process? 
  • What are senescent cells? Provide some examples of the harmful compounds that senescent cells secrete. 
  • In the video, what are the factors that can influence lifespan that are discussed?  
  • How does the immune system change with age? Why are elderly people more vulnerable to incidences of disease, such as the flu? 

Exploring Concepts

  • What are telomeres? How are they involved in the aging process? 
  • What are senescent cells? Provide some examples of the harmful compounds that senescent cells secrete. 
  • In the video, what are the factors that can influence lifespan that are discussed?  
  • How does the immune system change with age? Why are elderly people more vulnerable to incidences of disease, such as the flu? 

Nature of Science/Nature of Technology

  • What is the purpose of having a control group in an experiment?
  • Why are studies with mice only a starting point in understanding approaches to reducing aging? 
  • Are there any ethical issues related to extending human lifespans? Explain.   

Nature of Science/Nature of Technology

  • What is the purpose of having a control group in an experiment?
  • Why are studies with mice only a starting point in understanding approaches to reducing aging? 
  • Are there any ethical issues related to extending human lifespans? Explain.   

Media Literacy

  • Can you think of any fictitious stories in popular media about aging - aging too quickly, reverse aging, never aging, or time travel that has implications on aging? Why do you think the topic of aging is an inspiring topic for creators and consumers of fiction? (e.g., Peter Pan by J M Barrie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt.)
  • Is our culture youth-obsessed? Why or why not? Does the media promote a view that aging is negative or positive? Provide examples. 
  • What positive messages about aging are we seeing and hearing? What media evidence of an anti-aging counter-culture exists? (e.g., TV stations geared to older audiences, older celebrities modeling and endorsing products, more roles for aging actresses.)

Media Literacy

  • Can you think of any fictitious stories in popular media about aging - aging too quickly, reverse aging, never aging, or time travel that has implications on aging? Why do you think the topic of aging is an inspiring topic for creators and consumers of fiction? (e.g., Peter Pan by J M Barrie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt.)
  • Is our culture youth-obsessed? Why or why not? Does the media promote a view that aging is negative or positive? Provide examples. 
  • What positive messages about aging are we seeing and hearing? What media evidence of an anti-aging counter-culture exists? (e.g., TV stations geared to older audiences, older celebrities modeling and endorsing products, more roles for aging actresses.)

Teaching Suggestions

  • This article and embedded video support teaching and learning in Health & Human Body studies related to factors affecting aging and lifespan. Cellular processes of the circulatory and immune system that influence the aging process are explored. Concepts introduced include blood transfusion, antibodies, senescent cells, telomeres and control group.
  • Before reading the article, the teacher could have students discuss the Connecting & Relating questions to get them thinking about aging and their beliefs about aging in general. 
  • After reading the article and viewing the embedded videos, teachers could have students explore the technological, social, and environmental impacts of extending human lifespans by completing a Consequence Mapping learning strategy. Download ready-to-use Consequence Map reproducibles in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
    • What are the potential consequences for society, technology and the environment of extending human lifespan?
  • Teachers could also have students watch this video, How to Cure Aging – During Your Lifetime? (7:20 min), which presents three examples of potential medical interventions that may have application in extending human lifespan. Students could use a Print-Video Venn Diagram learning strategy to compare the information provided in the article with this video. Download ready-to-use Print-Video Venn Diagram reproducibles in [Google doc] and [.pdf] formats.
  • Everyone has an opinion about aging! To extend cross-curricular learning, consider having students discuss and/or debate ideas from the Media Literacy section. 

Teaching Suggestions

  • This article and embedded video support teaching and learning in Health & Human Body studies related to factors affecting aging and lifespan. Cellular processes of the circulatory and immune system that influence the aging process are explored. Concepts introduced include blood transfusion, antibodies, senescent cells, telomeres and control group.
  • Before reading the article, the teacher could have students discuss the Connecting & Relating questions to get them thinking about aging and their beliefs about aging in general. 
  • After reading the article and viewing the embedded videos, teachers could have students explore the technological, social, and environmental impacts of extending human lifespans by completing a Consequence Mapping learning strategy. Download ready-to-use Consequence Map reproducibles in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
    • What are the potential consequences for society, technology and the environment of extending human lifespan?
  • Teachers could also have students watch this video, How to Cure Aging – During Your Lifetime? (7:20 min), which presents three examples of potential medical interventions that may have application in extending human lifespan. Students could use a Print-Video Venn Diagram learning strategy to compare the information provided in the article with this video. Download ready-to-use Print-Video Venn Diagram reproducibles in [Google doc] and [.pdf] formats.
  • Everyone has an opinion about aging! To extend cross-curricular learning, consider having students discuss and/or debate ideas from the Media Literacy section. 

Learn more

Why age? Should we end aging forever? (2017)

Video (6:48 min.) from Kurzgesagt on why we age, some of the science behind why we age, and asks the question of if we should end aging.

Why we age - and how we can stop it (2012)

Video (10:23 min.) from SciShow on how we age, why we age, and the ways that scientists are studying the aging process in order to slow or stop it completely.

Can We Stop Aging (2015)

Article from Scientific American on promising anti-aging therapies.
 

References

Baar, M., Brandt, R., Putavet, D., Klein, J., Derks, K., & Bourgeois, B. et al. (2017). Targeted apoptosis of senescent cells restores tissue homeostasis in response to chemotoxicity and aging. Cell, 169(1), 132-147. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.02.031

Das, A., Huang, G., Bonkowski, M., Longchamp, A., Li, C., & Schultz, M. et al. (2018). Impairment of an endothelial NAD+-H2S signaling network is a reversible cause of vascular aging. Cell, 173(1), 74-89. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.02.008

Mannick, J., Del Giudice, G., Lattanzi, M., Valiante, N., Praestgaard, J., & Huang, B. et al. (2014). TOR inhibition improves immune function in the elderly. Science Translational Medicine, 6(268). DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3009892

Schanzer, D. L., Tam, T. W., Langley, J. M., & Winchester, B. T. (2007). Influenza-attributable deaths, Canada 1990-1999. Epidemiology and infection, 135(7), 1109-1116. DOI:10.1017/S0950268807007923

Weintraub, K. (2015, July 1). Researchers study 3 promising anti-aging therapies. Scientific American.