Friday, September 2, 2016

High aspirations

In a recent article in New York magazine, journalist Benjamin Wallace described a new kind of aspiration to immortality, one achieved through the pharmaceutical breakthroughs in the years since the human genome project was fully mapped in 2003. The article focuses on Leonard Guarente, a biologist who directs MIT’s AgeLab and cofounded Elysium Health, and is a strong proponent of the notion that longevity, through science, could stretch a good deal farther than most people assume. As described in Wallace’s article, Elysium Health has developed a “daily health product designed to optimize support for your most critical metabolic systems.” The claims include helping people with several chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s. As Wallace put it, the Elysium brand “began pummeling my awareness for weeks, the ads barreling into my Facebook feed with claims of being the world’s first cellular health product.” “Cellular” suggests that the proposed therapy would work at the level of individual cells, rather than in the brain only.
What is particularly noteworthy is that the company bypassed the Food and Drug Administration, “effectively using its customers as human test subjects, sometimes reviewing their FitBit and other health-tracking data to determine if the pill delivers on its promise—or causes unexpected problems.” Wallace himself took part in the trials. “If I were going to trust anyone in a lab coat promising a magic pill to stay healthy longer, Guarente appeared to be a good bet. As the month’s end drew near, I was reluctant to stop taking Basis,” the drug in question. “But what promise!” Wallace exclaimed, predicting that in the next five to ten years, today’s research will bear fruit. He noted that while people won’t necessarily live longer, they might live better, suffering fewer of the consequences of aging.
Last fall I attended a forum on aging, and the figures cited on longevity were similar to what Wallace describes—the world’s oldest woman, who died at 123, was highlighted. Also noted was that babies being born last year are expected, on average, to live over 100. But the speakers had little to say about how degraded our planet will have become, if current environmental trends continue.
This led me to reflect on two works of the imagination, one a movie from 1973 starring Charlton Heston, Soylent Green. The fictional year is 2022. The authorities keep a tight lid on rioting, and most of the population is miserable in their global-warming-run-amok climate. More relevant is the recently published book by Don DeLillo, one of the most critically acclaimed novelists of the past three decades. To read DeLillo at his best—and his new novel, Zero K, is one of his best—is to perceive reality as it might be just around the corner. The cryonics business—the dream of suspended animation—is flourishing in out-of-the-way places. This is not science fiction; better to think of it as a preview of the near future. In this book, DeLillo’s obsidian-sharp prose is at its best. A key plot point, which I won’t divulge, floored me. And DeLillo is the only writer who could have pulled it off.

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