The Science of Aging and its Fictional Cures

Aging

Author’s note: This article was originally published by invitation in Dan Koboldt’s Science in Sci-fi blog series. See the original article here. If you are interested in more Science in Sci-fi, check out Putting the Science in Fiction for expert advice on writing Sci-fi and Fantasy with authenticity. It will be published in October 2018 by Writers Digest, with a foreword written by bestselling author Chuck Wendig. You can pre-order on Amazon, just click on the cover image to be redirected. I will have an article published in the book.

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The Science of Aging and its Fictional Cures

All things age. For non-biological objects, it is a matter of entropy and oxidation (see “Aging Properties” by Gwen C. Katz in Putting the Science in Fiction). While life is not immune to these effects, it has the ability to replenish itself, repair damage, and theoretically exist indefinitely. So why don’t we live forever? This article will explore the science of biological aging and debunk some of its misconceptions in fiction.

 

Myth: Death by Old Age

“So-and-so died from old age.” We’ve all said it or heard it before. But can age really kill you?

Ultimately, aging does not kill you, but makes you more vulnerable to other things that will. As time goes on, our physiological integrity weakens and cells no longer act like they should. Muscles weaken, metabolism slows, and we all become a bit more sedentary, leaving us at risk for accidents, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and coronary artery disease. Similarly, DNA repair slackens and increases the risk of cancer, the immune system becomes erratic and can lead to autoimmune diseases, and the brain loses it edge and degenerates. All together, the chance that something will kill you every year is over 1000x more likely in the elderly than in children.

How to get it right:

Here are some of the most common causes of death:

Heart disease

Cancer

Stroke

Lung diseases and infections

Accidents

Diabetes

Alzheimer’s

Kidney disease

For the most part, the incidence of all of these causes of death increases with age. In other words, age is never the cause of death, but age-related diseases are. Similarly, “death by natural causes” is commonly used to describe the death of an elderly individual, since these causes are common enough to be considered natural.

 

Myth: There Exists Such a Thing as a Life-Force

There persists a notion that life is some ethereal force that courses through us, able to be sucked away by the first succubus/incubus that lures us in. Aging, therefore, would be the waning of such a life-force.

As far as we know, there is no ethereal energy that perfuses all life and makes it work. In fact, life can be manufactured by going online, copying the genetic sequence of a simple organism, synthesizing the DNA in a machine, and injecting it into an empty husk of a cell. This artificial “life” will then proceed to live on its own as shown by an experiment performed in 2010 by Craig Venter.

How to get it right:

All life has a few things in common, though there are exceptions to the rule. The standard definition of life is an entity that can grow, reproduce, undergo metabolic processes, and sense and interact with the environment. From this definition, metabolism is about the only thing that can be considered a life-force that can be given or taken away.

There is some truth to the concept though, as mitochondria, the energy producing organelles in most of our cells, do lose some of their efficiency as we age, and are implicated in many age-related diseases. Similarly, there do appear to be factors circulating through our body that affect how we age, and these can even be transferred from one person to another. Parabiosis is an experiment wherein two animals are surgically connected, allowing them to share blood. The older of the two animals will show signs of improved cognitive performance, muscle development, heart health, cellular regeneration, and properties that typically deteriorate with age.

The circulating factors thought to mediate this effect are certain inflammatory molecules (cytokines), small packets of intracellular materials (exosomes), some mitochondrial proteins, and many others. Interestingly, some of these are the same factors that promote systemic health following exercise. So unless you plan to surgically attach yourself to your much younger friend, or are currently a succubus/incubus, exercise truly is the best medicine.

 

Myth: The Elixir of Life and other instant cure-alls

Fiction often portrays the cure of aging as an easy fix, often restoring youthful vitality and vigor over the course of just a few minutes. Such an elixir smooths wrinkled skin, increases muscle mass, darkens silver-white hair, and eliminates all ailments associated with age. If only it were that simple.

Many researchers agree that aging is the result of mutations and other damage that accumulate over time, causing cancer, affecting metabolism, protein turnover, the immune system, the endocrine system, etc. A cure to aging would need to reverse all of this damage. Among other things, this would require replacing the lost connective tissue in the skin and removing it from areas where it has been produced in excess, like the muscle. It would need to revive cells that have already died, and kill cells like cancer. Additionally, the cure would need to remove lipid plaques from the vasculature, amyloid plaques from the brain, and fix every type of damage down to individual proteins and DNA mutation. And by most depictions, all of this would occur over the course of a few seconds to minutes. While this may look visually impressive, it would be impossible. The changes that occur with age are just too numerous and widespread to be reversed.

A fictional remedy like small nanomachines would have to constantly change shape, be physically capable of reaching every crevasse of every protein and condensed DNA strand, retain the information of what to fix and how, and somehow produce and store enough energy to complete the task. Even if it could somehow do all these things, fixing the accumulated damage would not be instantaneous, nor would it be visually apparent for at least a day or two. Similarly, gene editing never shows immediate effects, whether by taking years off your appearance or, if so designed, transforming you into a werewolf.

How to get it right:

Fortunately, there are some drugs and lifestyle changes being explored that have been shown to increase lifespan in mice and other mammals, though the effect is relatively mild. Some of these longevity enhancers have negative side effects, however, like testicular atrophy in the case of Rapamycin. Similarly, caloric restriction doesn’t sound like something I would do voluntarily. Even taking such measures, an indefinite extension of our lifespan may not be possible without something to extend our telomeres, the condensed DNA at the end of our chromosomes that gets shorter with each cell division.

Of course, your fictional characters might choose to skip over the cure, and abandon their aging bodies all together for something far more durable. They have merged them, body and mind, with machines. For more info, see Edward Ashton’s post on Immortality in Science Fiction.

 

Myth: Agelessness and the Fountain of Youth

Since reversing aging seems unlikely, the only other option would be to make your character ageless, resistant to the wear and tear of time. However, like wizards and elves, the ageless being is completely fictional.

The most common source of damage within the cell is the act of living itself. While metabolizing our food and consuming the oxygen we breathe, the mitochondria occasionally produces a small amount of oxidants, which then oxidize proteins, DNA, and lipids. DNA polymerase, which is responsible for copying our DNA during cell division, can slip or make a base-pair mismatch. Our immune system, which functions primarily to rid us of invading micro-organisms, can get overzealous and damage other cells caught in the crossfire.

Also, let’s not forget that life is just complex chemistry, and sometimes damaging chemical reactions will occur at a low frequency that are impossible to prevent, like the hydrolysis of DNA. Another major cause of the accumulating damage is the environment. Background radiation, toxins from our food or water, and the aforementioned microorganisms can interfere with all manner of biological processes and inflict direct damage. Eventually DNA damage accumulates, leading to cellular dysfunction, and ultimately death. To be ageless, one would have to resist all of this damage.

How to get it right:

Not all beings are created equal, however, and many creatures that have found a way to subvert the effect of time.

Take the “immortal jellyfish” for example. It is said to live indefinitely by reverting back to an immature polyp state. Unfortunately, humans are quite a bit more complex than a jellyfish. Such a state of immortality would be like taking the DNA from one of your cells and cloning yourself. Your clone would have none of your memories and be a distinct organism. Another creature, the naked mole rat, has extraordinary DNA repair capabilities and connective tissue factors. It looks nearly identical at year one as it does at an impressive 30 years old, which is to say it looks rather hideous all its life.

The Icelandic clam, the Greenland shark, and some other sea-dwellers have been known to live as long as 500 years, partly due to its resistance to oxidative damage. Somehow, I don’t think their natural environments would be compatible for us, but the secret to their longevity may one day be translated to humanity.

If a means to become ageless is developed during your lifetime, chances are you won’t be able to use it. Your unborn children, however, might be more fortunate. The most likely method will be to modify our progeny’s’ genetic code to enhance cellular repair, telomerase activity, antioxidant enzymes, and other processes shown to prolong life in animal models. Only then would human biology have a chance at resisting the ravages of time.

 

Conclusion

Life is complex; so many parts need to come together to keep it functioning, and if one thing falters, so does life end. Gerontology is the study of how those complicated parts of life fail over time. The Somatic DNA damage theory of aging alluded to in this article is just one theory of many. Other theories include antagonistic pleiotropy (i.e. that which makes us strong early in life, makes us weak later), disposable soma theory (i.e. keeping the body young isn’t the best allocation of resources), the replicative senescence theory (i.e. telomere shortening), rate of living theory, other damage accumulation theories, as well as some theories proposing we are programmed to age and die, often for the “overall prosperity of society.” There are still numerous theories of aging which haven’t been conclusively proven or disproven, and until we know the real cause, finding the cure will be all the more difficult.

“If there is one thing a Gerontologists understands, it is complexity,” said Dr. William Hazzard, a renowned gerontologists, at a 2018 aging symposium named in his honor. And while there is currently no cure for aging, there are things we can do in the meantime to slow it down. Dr. Hazzard, an 81-year-old academic who took the three stairs to the podium in one leaping bound, asserts that the best medicine is to “keep moving,” to “keep learning,” and above all, “embrace the totality of the experience.”

 

Until next time, Write Well and Science Hard

Interviewed by my alma mater

WhywelearnSo this was a first. A couple weeks ago I was interviewed by my alma mater, Auburn University Montgomery, for their article series titled “#WhyWeLearn.” Click here to view the article they wrote.

For those of you who are interested in how I came to love both writing and science, I posted the full interview here. Enjoy!

Interviewer- Beck Phillips, AUM Strategic Communications and Marketing

Q1. You started in English and left for Biology. What made you want to switch?

Like so many other freshman, I still hadn’t figured out what to do with my life. I wanted many things, but one passion stood above the rest: writing. It takes a lot of practice and dedication to become a professional writer, and I planned to make it there eventually. In the meantime, I went in search of a work-study position at AUM. I admit, the idea of spending all day in the library for both work and school, was idyllic. Unfortunately, no such position was available, so I accepted an opening in the biology department. I’d always found science interesting, so it wasn’t surprising that I took to my responsibilities with a lot of healthy fascination and curiosity. In setting up labs and helping biology professors with various tasks, I was introduced to Virginia Hughes, who was an instructor in the Clinical Laboratory Sciences program. For days I helped her use the microscope camera to take pictures of blood cells for a hematology atlas. My interest piqued, I investigated the program. In addition to hematology, they taught immunohematology, microbiology, immunology, chemistry, and many other clinical subjects. For someone who loved many scientific fields, it was immediately appealing to me. Within a few weeks, I had applied to the program. Science, I decided, would be my career, but writing would always be my hobby. At the time, I couldn’t have foreseen how important my writing would be to my science career.

Q2. But you never gave up your love for language and writing?

Writing has been my passion since high school, when I decided to write the story I had always wanted to read. Those creative muscles couldn’t be exercised with science alone. I still had stories to tell, experiences to share, and an imagination that needed to be let out on paper every now and then. So I wrote. At first I wrote short stories, but then a story that was too large came along. After my first novel, I started another, then another. I was addicted. For me, writing was a way to communicate those complex ideas I couldn’t quite vocalize, to exercise my imagination, and to hopefully inspire others.

Q3. Did your professors here encourage you to do both? How did you avoid being
“pigeonholed”? Did anyone here at AUM help or encourage you?

For a long time, I kept my love for science and writing separate. When I took creative writing classes, I focused on writing, and when I took my science classes, I focused on science. Then one day in my Writing Fiction class, Jeffrey Melton, my instructor, gave me the advice all writers will eventually hear: “Write what you know.” And I knew about science. I wrote a short story about a crime scene and a clever detective who used forensic science to identify the true perpetrator. The story was well received in class, and I decided that perhaps writing and science could somehow mesh together. This concept became even clearer in my science classes, when I was required to write reports and papers, and give presentations. The mechanics of writing and the ability to tell a good story are just as important to communicating science as writing fiction. My main source of encouragement was Melinda Kramer, who, as both my mom and an AUM employee, cultivated my love for science and writing and knew exactly where I could find the resources I needed.

Q4. How did your time (and the people) here at AUM help prepare you for your
future and your career?

I owe my success in writing and science to so many at AUM. The instructors in the Biology department deserve most of the credit. Sue Thomson, took me in as a work-study student, and gave me every opportunity to learn new things and pursue my interests. Ben Okeke gave me my first research experience and taught me about biofuels and microbiology. When I joined the Clinical Laboratory Sciences program, I was introduced to Kyle Taylor, who taught me all about microorganisms and disease, and gave me even more research opportunities. To this day, I still use the laboratory practices and techniques I learned from Kathy Jones. I owe many of them thanks for writing the recommendation letters that played a large role in getting me into Grad school.

Q5. You were sort of a pre-cursor to STE(A)M (science, technology,
engineering, (arts), and math) — how valuable has your work in each field
been to the other?

My experiences in each field have been immediately applicable to the others. The broad scientific background I received at AUM gave me an advantage over my classmates in Grad school, many of whom came from highly specialized fields. My interest in hematology, immunology, and biochemistry culminated in many successful and highly cited studies in my dissertation lab. My background in writing and the arts has allowed me to communicate my science and create effective figures for my publications and presentations. I use math daily to perform my experiments and to analyze data. I have consulted and beta-tested new technologies for clinical research, and have been called on to perform troubleshooting and repairs for those instruments. No skill has been wasted. The true test of this was perhaps my short story entry into the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story contest. The contest seeks scientifically accurate short stories set in the near future, and is co-hosted by the National Space Society. My story was about a rover operator living in San Francisco, who finds himself in the terrifying position to save the life of an astronaut on Mars. I was not qualified from a mathematical, engineering, or technological standpoint to create a 100% feasible story, but if there was one thing the sciences taught me, it was how to do research. I spent months investigating every aspect of Mars and rover technology that might be relevant to the story.

Q6. How do you apply your talent for writing to the field of science?

Writing scientific grants, publications, and reviews require the use of descriptive and persuasive language. With the current state of scientific funding, a grant must be interesting and comprehensible to stand out among all the rest. I have personally applied for and received two grants for personal funding and have been involved in many large institutional grants that have been funded. My writing experience has been invaluable to the writing of nearly 20 co-authored scientific publications, which have been cited over 200 times. The same can be said for the role of science in my writing successes. The science I learned from AUM, grad school, and during my time as a biomedical researcher, routinely serves as fodder for my stories. I currently maintain a writing and science blog that advocates for the use of accurate science in sci-fi.

Q7. What goals do you have for yourself in the future after winning this award?

The Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest was the first short story contest I’d ever entered. To say I was surprised to win is an understatement. Receiving even the slightest bit of validation for your craft does wonders for your motivation. There are more contests to enter and no shortage of stories to tell. In the near future, I hope to publish my first novel. All of this would be impossible without the help of the writing and critique groups I’ve joined, and the continued support of my family, friends, and former teachers.

Q8. What advice do you have for current and future AUM Warhawks about their
academic choices?

Never let go of the things that make you happy. Life gets busy, and often you have to set your passions aside, but if it is truly something you love, you will find time for it. Be it writing, painting, music, culture and language, eventually that hobby will make you stand out from your peers and give you the advantage.
Additionally, there are far more opportunities out there than you may realize. If you’re intent on pursuing one career path from the moment you enter college, you’ll miss out on some amazing opportunities. Take the time to learn about the world, and soon you’ll discover your place in it. That is, after all, why we learn.