Saturday, April 20, 2024

Why We Die: "A New Chapter in the Quest for a Longer Life"

From UnDark, April 19:

In “Why We Die,” biologist and Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan explores the science of aging and life extension.

In 2023, tech mogul Bryan Johnson revealed that he had been receiving blood plasma exchanges from his 17-year-old son, in the hope that siphoning his son’s young blood into his middle-aged body would help him combat aging and cheat death. 

Johnson might be an extreme outlier, but his quest exemplifies a common human trait: denial about our mortality. As Venki Ramakrishnan writes in his new book, “Why We Die: The New Science of Aging and the Quest for Immortality,” searching for the secrets to longevity has “driven human civilization for centuries.” Humans may be unique among animals in our ability to understand and anticipate death, and ever since we evolved into this awareness, we’ve struggled to accept it. We espouse religious beliefs about reincarnation or the everlasting immortal soul, we attempt to live on through offspring and legacy, and, of course, since antiquity, we have searched for eternal life.

Ramakrishnan, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry who has spent his career studying how cell proteins are made, is primarily occupied with that last coping strategy in his fascinating book. For much of the 20th century, serious scientists dismissed gerontology, or the study of aging, as the provenance of cranks and loons. But in this century, it’s become a major research priority. In the past 10 years alone, Ramakrishnan writes, more than 700 startups have invested billions of dollars into solving this greatest human problem.

With a topic as charged as eternal life, it’s hard to separate hype from reality. Ramakrishnan aims to help readers make sense of billionaire antics, breathless press releases, and splashy scientific advances. He wants his reader to understand why we age, why we die, and what, realistically, can be done about it.

First, says Ramakrishnan, it’s important to understand what death is — he defines it as when “we stop functioning as a coherent whole” — and why we age. Scientists have spent decades pondering why, unlike luckier species like the hydra and immortal jellyfish, our bodies must decay. Many proposed answers to this question rest on the idea that evolution doesn’t care about traits that decay the body later in life: Since for much of human history, we died of disease or unnatural causes long before reaching old age, it made evolutionary sense to select for traits that help an organism reproduce and pass on its genes, rather than selecting for traits that will keep us alive for centuries. As Ramakrishnan colorfully and memorably writes, “You could say that death is the price we pay for sex!”....