“I have seen the occupation that God has given to the sons of men to keep them occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has even put eternity in their heart.”—Ecclesiastes 3:10, 11.
THOSE ancient words of wise King Solomon accurately describe the feelings humans have about life. Perhaps because life is short and death is unavoidable, humans have over the centuries yearned for something better. History has many stories and legends of man’s search for the secret to a long life.
Take, for example, Gilgamesh, a Sumerian king. Many fanciful legends were told about his life. One, as recounted in the Epic of Gilgamesh, purported that he made a dangerous journey to learn how to escape death. He failed in his attempt.
In the fourth century B.C.E., alchemists in China tried to concoct an elixir that was believed to prolong life. They came up with a potion laced with mercury and elements of arsenic. It is thought that this elixir brought death to several Chinese emperors. In medieval Europe, some alchemists attempted to make gold digestible because they believed that its corrosion-resistant properties could extend human life.
Today, some biologists and geneticists are trying to unlock the secret of aging. Like the quest for the “elixir of life,” their search shows that the hope of overcoming aging and death is still very much on people’s minds. But what have been the results of such research?
GOD HAS “PUT ETERNITY IN THEIR HEART.”—ECCLESIASTES 3:10, 11
SEEKING THE CAUSES OF AGING TODAY
Scientists who study the human cell have come up with more than 300 theories to explain why we grow old and die. In recent years, molecular biologists have succeeded in manipulating genes and proteins to slow down the aging process in laboratory animals and in human cells. Such advances have prompted some prominent citizens to finance research on “the problem of death.” What directions have such investigations taken?
Turning back the internal clock. Some biologists believe that a key factor in aging lies in the end sections of our chromosomes, called telomeres. Telomeres protect the genetic information in our cells as they reproduce. But each time the cells divide, the telomeres shorten. Eventually, the cells stop dividing and aging sets in.
The 2009 Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and her team identified an enzyme that delays the shortening of the telomeres and, as a result, the aging of the cell. However, their report acknowledges that telomeres “are not magical life extenders—they don’t let us live past the normal human life span as we know it.”
Cellular reprogramming is another approach to curb aging. When our cells become too old to replicate, they may send wrong signals to nearby immune cells, causing inflammation, chronic pain, and disease. Recently, scientists in France have reprogrammed cells taken from elderly people, some of whom were over 100 years old. The research team leader, Professor Jean-Marc Lemaître, declared that their work demonstrated “the reversibility of aging” in the cells.
CAN SCIENCE LENGTHEN OUR LIVES?
Not all scientists agree that antiaging treatments can prolong human life far beyond what is attainable today. True, human life expectancy has steadily increased since the 19th century. But this is mainly due to better hygiene, successful measures against infectious diseases, and the use of antibiotics and vaccines. Some geneticists believe that the human life span has more or less reached its natural limit.
About 3,500 years ago, the Bible writer Moses acknowledged: “The span of our life is 70 years, or 80 if one is especially strong. But they are filled with trouble and sorrow; they quickly pass by, and away we fly.” (Psalm 90:10) Despite man’s efforts to extend our life span, life remains basically the way Moses described it.
On the other hand, creatures like the red sea urchin or one species of the quahog clam can live over 200 years, and trees like the giant sequoia can live thousands of years. When we compare our life span with that of these and other living things, do we not wonder, ‘Is this life of 70 or 80 years all there is?’