Immortality, Struldbrugs and the ad infinitum
by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.
Humankind may have forever dreamed of immortality. Jonathan Swift ridiculed that undying wish in his masterwork Gulliver’s Travels by bringing struldbrugs to literary life. Immortal, but still subject to the aging process, these unfortunates were condemned to suffer eternally all the negative physical, mental and emotional ravages afflicting the elderly.
Since Swift’s time, while still far from immortal, scientific and medical advances have improved the average person’s prospects greatly. The typical baby born in 1900 had a mean life expectancy of 50 years and over the past century this has been extended to well over 80 years in some parts of the world today (1). Improved living standards, effective control of infectious diseases and better diets have yielded a momentous demographic change; populations are older than ever. Correlated with this change, chronic and degenerative diseases are increasing in significance. Although poor health is not a certainty, chronic conditions afflict the elderly disproportionately (2).
The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease (3), an incurable, progressive brain disorder that impairs memory, thinking and behavior offers a good example of the aging dilemma. Sometimes incorrectly termed senile dementia, the most significant risk for its appearance is advanced age (3). Some persons may escape dementia, but most will exhibit some degree of cognitive impairment if they simply live long enough. In a real sense life expectancy extension has been a double-edged sword; many of us can now anticipate living long enough to develop cognitive impairment or full-blown AD dementia.
Developing therapies to prevent or mitigate AD dementia has been a priority for biomedical scientists for decades (4). Although the molecular mechanisms creating the toxic deposits associated with AD have been partially explained, therapies based on these findings have been disappointing to date. Unraveling and eliminating AD may turn out to be a long and tedious process. Perhaps once we vanquish AD formerly rare brain-destroying maladies like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease will emerge to kill us. Maybe we will ultimately become impatient with bodies so ill-suited to serve our demands for immortality and go cyborg.
Nearly 300 years after Gulliver’s Travels we remain entranced by immortality and scientists avidly pursue the dream with nightmarish ramifications. The grand goal still eludes us, but in a sense we have drawn closer to one part of the Very Reverend Swift’s satirical prophecy. Life expectancy increases have expanded the numbers of persons facing the chronic diseases and infirmities of old age like AD. As we lurch step-by-frustrating-step along toward the longstanding ambition we may not really want to attain, another of his writings may be instructive:
So nat’ralists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller fleas to bite ’em.
And so proceeds Ad infinitum
(1) Global Health and Aging. National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging, U. S. Department of Health and Human Services and World Health Organization. https://www.nia.nih.gov/research/publication/global-health-and-aging/humanitys-aging
(2) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2009. http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/publications/aag/pdf/healthy_aging.pdf
(3) Alzheimer’s Association. http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_causes_risk_factors.asp.
(4) D. J. Selkoe and J. Hardy. 2016. The Amyloid Hypothesis of Alzheimer’s Disease at 25 Years. EMBO Molecular Medicine, 3 March 2016. http://embomolmed.embopress.org/content/8/6/595.long