We might be forgiven for a certain preoccupation with death. Maybe that’s because we're all born with a condition that is as inescapable as it is irreversible: aging. It makes sense that we want to learn as much as we can about this creeping condition; after all, it will kill us, one way or another.
Walter White, the anti-hero from TV's "Breaking Bad," started out as a benevolent chemistry teacher. His definition of life, as proclaimed to an indifferent classroom:
"It is growth. Then decay. Then transformation."
The transformation part has always been an imagination-catcher. We transform into … carbon, maybe even diamonds. Or we become cats. Or, is it moving into the sunny plains of the afterlife, the paradise promised at pulpits since time immemorial?
But the real science — the part that we can literally put under the microscope — lies at the earlier end of the spectrum: growth and decay.
In any organism, Growth is measurable: cells divide, over and over again, with many of them rallying for specific tasks. We get nerve cells, blood cells, reproductive cells. It’s the middle part of White's definition — the so-called decay — that has long drawn controversy.
On one hand, cells appear to wear down and misfire over time. The result, as Leda Zimmerman, an engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes, is "gradual deterioration of tissues, or catastrophic disease and system shutdown."
But is it really decay? Or another kind of change?
Scientists take on the challenge of aging
In a 2012 study, researchers at the University of Illinois found older minds were superior when performing stressful tasks — even though those same minds experienced short-term memory loss more often. The aging brain also has been regarded as the better brain when it comes to reining in emotions and dealing with social conflict. (And could there be a more useful skill set in our increasingly boundary-free society?)
No matter how you see aging, there's little doubt we're working hard to combat its negative effects. New drugs like metformin are gathering on the horizon, promising to add decades of healthier living to lives that have already been dramatically extended in the modern era. Anti-aging prophets like Nir Barzilai of the renowned Albert Einstein College of Medicine vows that we’ll soon realize not only healthier lives, but longer ones.
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have already managed to significantly boost the lifespans of mice. In fact, some scientists see aging as something to be cured.
"I define it as a disease," David Sinclair, a biologist at Harvard Medical School, tells Seeker. "Most doctors are trained that aging is something separate from disease. But the only difference in the medical textbooks is that if the majority of people get an age-associated disorder, we call it aging. If less than half of people get something over time, it's a disease."
If it's a disease, there's little doubt it's a terminal one. But Sinclair ranks among a new wave of self-styled "geroscientists" who think we can slow its ravages dramatically. The key, he says, is to understand the cellular and molecular processes that take place as we get older and, ultimately, prevent the diseases that result from those processes. By looking at aging as a medical condition, Sinclair and a team from University of New South Wales have already made strides in treating it. In March, they announced the discovery of a molecule that can repair damaged DNA.
"Our technology in the animals slows down the appearance of diseases, and that’s how we know that it's slowing down aging itself," Sinclair told Seeker. "And as a consequence of being healthier, the animals live longer. We think the same will happen in people. If we can delay all major diseases, then we will extend people's lives, but only because they're healthier."
Healthy and old is certainly the long-sought holy grail of science. Because if there's anything a consumer culture covets more than the next iPhone, it's the years needed to covet the iPhone after that.
But does healthy and old exact a price? After all, isn't having the same experience for a very long time — or even an eternity — a classical definition of hell?
Appreciating the stages of life
Isn't our very mortality what drives us to wring joy from every possible moment? Maybe there’s something to be said for, if not exactly embracing, appreciating the life-affirming role of decay.
The breakdowns — those momentary lapses in memory, the increasing labors of drawing oxygen — aren't they all just powerful reminders that we're in a constant state of change?
Growth, decay, transformation.
If we keep moving back the markers on that stage of Walter White’s theory of life, then what's it all for? That final destination — the transformation — may be the only place science hasn't mapped. It's still the province of theologians and dreamers and chemistry teachers, a refreshingly unknown final destination that enlivens every moment of our here and now.
Maybe we lose those electric moments during life when we try to indefinitely delay that trip to the light at the end of the tunnel.