The desire to live forever haunts mortal dreams. The idea that eternal life might mean a life in hell is embedded within a lot of mythological stories. Modern cultures have made it possible for more people to live longer. The fear of going insane or demented is very strong and doctors strive to figure out how to grow old while keeping the mind as well as the body intact. This may or may not be a blessing in the long run for humanity.
The Longevity Genes Project, initiated by Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, investigates people who live exceptionally long lives.
Barzilai and his colleagues examined 158 people of Ashkenazi, or Eastern European Jewish, descent who were 95 years of age or older. They chose Ashkenazi Jews since current generations stem from a relatively limited number of ancestors. This means they have a comparatively uniform genetic makeup, making it easier to identify important genetic differences.
The scientists gave these volunteers a common test of mental function, consisting of 30 questions. Correctly answering 25 of the questions meant a subject passed the test. Those centenarians who passed were two to three times more likely to have a common variant of a particular gene, called the CETP gene, than those who did not. When the researchers studied another 124 Ashkenazi Jews between 75 and 85 years of age, those subjects who passed the test of mental function were five times more likely to have this gene variant than their counterparts.
The CETP gene variant makes cholesterol particles in the blood larger than normal. The researchers suggest smaller particles can more readily lodge in the lining of blood vessels, leading to fatty buildups, which are a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes.
I have had the good fortune to know a number of centenarians who kept their minds intact until virtually the very end. I learned how to do Victorian-style plasterwork from a man who was 99 years old. We talked about things while we worked together, I was only 22 years old. I asked him if he enjoyed remembering things.
He said he avoided this because it was painful. Namely, the people he remembered from the past were virtually all dead. He then told me how many of his children had died. I said the ritual condolences and he laughed and said, they all died after passing their 75th birthdays and the last child died at 81 years of age, his eldest son who was born when he was 18 years old and fresh off the boat from Italy.
Surrounded by grandchildren and greatgrandchildren, he was happy but the nights haunted him because you can't escape from the relentless world of dreams which has this habit of bringing up the unwanted past. This is why human psychology is so twisted.
When he broke his hip at 102, I visited him. He was increasingly frantic, the wise, calm ways of previous years was gone for he was no longer busy everyday. So the past rose up before him and the pain of loss was growing. So he told me, he wanted to die. I had the good fortune to recieve this gift and to return it by offering to look out for him when he was going to pass by.
Pharmaceutical companies are currently developing drugs that mimic the effect of this gene variant, says Barzilai. Unfortunately, one known as torcetrapib, manufactured by Pfizer, was pulled in December due to increased death and heart problems among study subjects, "but others in development aren't seeing that, so it might just have been a problem with that drug," says Barzilai. "If not, it's a question people might face--whether or not people want to prevent Alzheimer's even if there's a small risk of getting a heart attack."
Pfizer stock took quite a beating over this. Everyone was hoping it would not only be the Fountain of Youth but of course, El Dorado. Living long lives surrounded by luxury which flows from selling a medical system that lets people live very long: a seeming paradise.
There is a snake in this paradise: to pay for all this, to create this and extend it, to care for the longer living people means others must die. And the burden of these deaths weigh ever-heavier on the heads of the living. We see this today: all the ruling elites are living long like Presidents Ford or Reagan, muffled in a cocoon of protection while others die hideous deaths at the Gates of these Eternal Palaces. Not a single member of the entire extended Bush clan is fighting any wars they started. They all plan to exploit as much of the new longevity systems they can and live very long lives like dragons in caves filled with gold. Meanwhile, ordinary people get sent into a hellish war to die or lose their health and sanity so the money flowing into the dragon's cave continues or increases.
Yet we and other researchers have found that a family of genes involved in an organism's ability to withstand a stressful environment, such as excessive heat or scarcity of food or water, have the power to keep its natural defense and repair activities going strong regardless of age. By optimizing the body's functioning for survival, these genes maximize the individual's chances of getting through the crisis. And if they remain activated long enough, they can also dramatically enhance the organism's health and extend its life span. In essence, they represent the opposite of aging genes--longevity genes.
We began investigating this idea nearly 15 years ago by imagining that evolution would have favored a universal regulatory system to coordinate this well-known response to environmental stress. If we could identify the gene or genes that serve as its master controllers and thereby act as master regulators of an organism's life span, these natural defense mechanisms might be turned into weapons against the diseases and decline that are now apparently synonymous with human aging.
Many recently discovered genes, known by such cryptic names as daf-2, pit-1, amp-1, clk-1 and p66Shc, have been found to affect stress resistance and life span in laboratory organisms, suggesting that they could be part of a fundamental mechanism for surviving adversity. But our own two laboratories have focused on a gene called SIR2, variants of which are present in all organisms studied so far, from yeast to humans. Extra copies of the gene increase longevity in creatures as diverse as yeast, roundworms and fruit flies, and we are working to determine whether it does the same for larger animals, such as mice.
As one of the first longevity genes to have been identified, SIR2 is the best characterized, so we will focus here on its workings. They illustrate how a genetically regulated survival mechanism can extend life and improve health, and growing evidence suggests that SIR2 may be the key regulator of that mechanism.
The one thing I noticed about all the fine centenarians who crossed my own path over the years is how they all had challenging or difficult lives. Mrs. Lake's mother was the daughter of a slave in Alabama, for example. She took a train with a cardboard suitcase up North in 1900 and got a job as a private nurse in NYC. During the Great Depression, she had saved up enough money, she laughed, saying no one would allow her to go shopping for frills and frappery so she saved her hard-earned money instead and when the depression caused housing to plummet in price, the fact that she had hard cash meant she could buy a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
One day, someone set a bedroom on fire in her building which was next to my own. I ran over to help her only to see her jerk open a window and fling the burning mattress to the sidewald below! She was 98 years old when she did this! All her children were dead, too. Her best grandson lived next door to her and watched over her. She had one tragedy after another. Her third husband died in her arms and I came barging in for I heard him through the party walls, falling down with a crash.
She cried for three days, at the funeral, she and her elderly friends flung themselves into grief quite openly, it was a splendid funeral. Then, at the very end, she straightened out her hat and declared, 'Now how am I going to get a fourth husband at my age?'
Life flowed through her veins because she was an interesting person who took interest in life itself. My mother's godmother, Mrs. Mitchner, was the same. Died at 102 years of age. She taught me all about life and liberty. Her mind worked perfectly all the way to the day she decided she wanted to die and off she went.
In Greek mythology, Tithonus was a handsome mortal who fell in love with Eos, the goddess of the dawn. Eos realised that her beloved Tithonus was destined to age and die. She begged Zeus to grant her lover immortal life.
Zeus was a jealous god, prone to acts of deception in order to seduce beautiful gods and mortals, and he was not pleased with Eos's infatuation with a rival. In a classic Devil's Bargain, he granted Eos's wish -- literally. He made Tithonus immortal, but did not grant him eternal youth.
As Tithonus aged, he became increasingly debilitated and demented, eventually driving Eos to distraction with his constant babbling.
In despair, she turned Tithonus into a grasshopper. In Greek mythology, the grasshopper is immortal. (In a close cultural parallel, the Chinese believed that locusts live forever.) This myth also explains why grasshoppers chirrup ceaselessly, like demented old men.
The opposite of this is the Vampire. This creature lives forever without feeling any pity and happily drinks the blood of the living for nourishment. The rulers of this planet are all vampires. They may consider themselves noble but they are not. Many live very long lives. A hardening of the heart is their key. They imagine, they won't pay a price for this. Again, nearly all mythologies point to the obvious: at some terrible point in time, all must die. The deaths of these deadly creatures is terrifying to them and the price they pay at the Gates of Death are legendary.
Some people try to deal with potential pain of death by simply walling themselves off from loved ones. I have seen this all around me and it infects my own clan. It is a multi-generational mental illness. Wiping out the memory of brothers, sisters, children, parents is the commonest response to impending death. This family 'heritage' is very strong which still puzzles me because how can each generation 'know' to do this if the previous ones pretend there is no one around them?
Being the black sheep of my own family, I fretted about this for a long while. When my grandfather died, not one relative aside from my parents and some of us kids, came to his funeral. He was not a nobody, he has a crater named after him on the moon, for crying out loud! But my parents didn't tell any family members. When my mother's only sister died, she wasn't told, either. Total break down between family members. My grandfather had a brother who was still alive. He wasn't told nor did I learn of him until this year!
I figured, my family dealt with death by killing off each other while still alive. Then there is no pain if someone disappears for good. A disgusting philosophy which I do not subscribe to. This is why I plan to 'haunt' everyone by putting into the stream of consciousness which is the internet, the reality of our existing. I irritate therefore I exist.
After numerous operations at Sheba and Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem's Ein Kerem, where he spent the first five months after the second stroke, Sharon is still breathing only with the help of a respirator. Apparently oblivious to what goes around him and spared from pain, he is frequently visited by his sons Omri and Gilad, who have reduced to a minimum the number of visitors permitted to see him.
Sharon's medical file reads like a tragedy, an effort of dozens of well-meaning and dedicated doctors and nurses trying to save his life and restore his mental and physical functioning.
No one is saving anything. They are wasting not only their energy and time, they are focusing on keeping this dead man 'alive' while killing Palestinian children so they can suck up more resources for themselves so they can keep their dead in a living tomb. As I said, the clock is ticking against Sharon, an infamous butcher, and he will meet quite a crowd at the Gates of Death, all desiring to have a word with him.
Mao and Stalin and a host of other despots have done this: trying to live forever, they and their followers and family try to blunt Death's scythe. I have butchered animals in the past. And trust me, the idea that using a blunted blade is disgusting. It makes for a very nasty death which is why we always sharpen the knife before drawing it across a neck.
It is interesting, watching the doctors and all the people involved in Sharon's power base, refusing to look at reality. Every day, the same bulletin was issued that he was waking up because he jerked and arm and a leg which is just plain silly, even snakes do this hours after dying. Chickens can run in circles with their heads cut off before dropping.
Large mammals, and I have put down some in the past, move quite a bit even after a .45 blows out the brainstem, even. This is the nervous system reacting to final electrical charges.
The heart can beat long after the brain is dead. One can keep a very badly damaged brain dead person alive for a very long time and they will possibly blink or jerk around, even as they have no real brain left as we all saw last year with the Schiavo affair.
And it was my blog. All the other links were about how doctors hoped to revive Sharon. My darker musings was the only one that was about the moral and theological implications of his sloooowwww death.
One of the worst things about hyper-extending lives is psychological. The vast majority of humans are ill-prepared to deal with the logic of this fatal flaw. Namely, the longer we live, the more pain we will accumulate, the more mental pain. To get rid of this will lead to either suicide or insanity or murder. For example, arguing with me irritated my own parents so they assassinated me, so to speak. Namely, they made me 'dead'. Not for doing something bad but for asking philosophical questions about death.
Indeed, in previous ages, I would have been burned at the stake. Or like Cassandra, murdered. Indeed, the host of things done to women who see the future or talk about death is legendary in all cultures. Going back to the earliest human societies, women with the genetic ability to live past childbearing are the mothers of us all, these super-long living women and men who devoted themselves to the grandchildren, are what sent humans into cultural expansions as they successfully passed on ways of doing things and thinking about things.
The ancient Greeks who gave us so much science and culture in ancient Athens elevated the art of asking questions and demanding information to a high art. And they also executed Socrates for this very same thing. So I am actually fortunate to be alive at all, if shut out of a family for debating...SCIENCE!
In specific, human geneology, evolution and our fates. Isn't that a great joke? Har. Luckily for me, I grew up independent. Being a black sheep is actually a great way to survive. Many of the very old people I have known were 'black sheep' and lived far from their birthplaces. Maybe I should suggest someone study this. How, aside from the very rich who live lives of total protection, the majority of centenarians might just be people forced into independence at a very young age? It might tie together many of these elusive threads.