Analysis

Has the time come to take on time itself?

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a414 (Published 08 July 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a414
  1. Colin Farrelly, associate professor
  1. 1Department of Political Science, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Canada N2L 3G1
  1. farrelly{at}uwaterloo.ca
  • Accepted 27 March 2008

Staying healthier for longer has benefits for society as well as individuals. Colin Farrelly examines the efforts of science to delay ageing

Has the time come to get more serious about the effort to slow human ageing? The advocates of the longevity dividend believe it has.1 On 12 September 2006 the not-for-profit citizen advocacy organisation Alliance for Aging Research held a Capitol Hill symposium entitled “Going for the longevity dividend: scientific goals for the world’s aging populations.” This campaign calls on Congress to invest $3bn (£1.5bn; €2bn) annually into understanding the biology of ageing. That would amount to about 1% of the current Medicare budget.

In an era where media headlines are dominated by the war on terror and global warming, and much of the world’s population live in conditions of poverty and disease, it might seem insensitive and unfair to suggest that we should divert more scarce public funding into tackling ageing. But such a knee jerk reaction can be overcome once you consider the science and ethics behind the proposal.

Science of ageing

So is there any reason to believe that real, tangible benefits could be reaped through slowing down ageing? The scientists working in these areas certainly believe there is. Just two or three decades ago, research on ageing was a backwater.2 But cellular, molecular, and genetic studies using in vitro models and short lived invertebrates have resulted in an impressive pace of discovery.3 Success in increasing longevity in laboratory organisms has shown that ageing is not an immutable process.

For example, many studies have found that the lifespan of organisms such as worms, flies, and mice can be extended by restricting food intake. Dietary restriction delays and slows the progression of various diseases associated with age, including neoplasia, and maintains many physiological processes in a youthful …

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