Here in Alberta, Canada, you may have heard that we are having a bit of good fortune lately. With oil at over seventy dollars a barrell, oil-rich Alberta is literally busting at the seams with surplus cash. The situation is so dire in fact that the government is unable to decide how to spend it all. This year alone there is projected to be an NINE BILLION DOLLAR surplus, and no matter how you try to allocate it, it is very difficult to mobilize that amount of money quickly. So we’re ramping up…
But oil doesn’t last forever.. so we’re beginning to understand, and it would seem a wise move to make the most of our good fortune by developing another resource, one more based on human capital and more renewable than fossil fuels. Let’s develop technology. Lets build something everyone wants, something with a universal demand and that constantly runs out, the ultimate consumable. Let’s develop technology that can sell people more time.
I’ve taken this idea, as well as others involving the value of developing technologies to extend healthy lifespan, to various groups here in Alberta. I’m hoping introduce the concept that we could be that global center that is first to the table with intervention-oriented aging therapies. With increasing costs on our health care systems, our aging loved ones would appreciate the opportunity to remain engaged and productive as well as provide that same ability to others. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so, I’ve received a less than enthusiastic reception to this concept. I think its a question of desirability and feasibility. If something is so desirable but is unacheivable, often the response is make it not quite as attractive, and this is what I believe is the psychological defense mechanism one so often finds associated with the suggestion of extending human life. People would love to live longer and healthier but they don’t believe it’s possible and therefore somehow make the association that living ‘X’ years of a natural lifespan is actually better than living X+Y years. This is the surprising reaction I get from many people, but one thing I’ve noticed is that almost all of these people are fit and healthy, very few are experiencing a compromise in function that seemed to affect their quality of life. I found out yesterday that perhaps I’m speaking to the wrong demographic in looking for a warm welcome for the idea of living longer and healthier.
I spent the morning yesterday amidst a wonderful quorum, an inviting group of individuals who are the leaders of regional chapters of the Alberta Council on Aging. At the time I didn’t know who these people were, they were only 12 seniors who I had agreed to meet with and make a presentation of the idea of applying engineering principles to repair the damage of aging.
I opened the door to a large room which contained a number of cafeteria tables sandwiched together to form a single long conference surface around which twelve obvioulsy older individuals were seated, deep in conversation discussing the minutia of an agenda item. I felt a bit like I was interrupting but my fears were immediately dispelled when the Executive Director waved me over and she stood up and started hauling chairs off a stack by the wall indicating they were for me to sit in if I wished. I took my seat and within a few minutes she ‘ahemed’ her way into the conversation and told the people around the table who I was and why I was there. Now I’ve spoken in front of crowds before, but rarely have I felt as nervous as when I was being peered at by a group who had been dealing with people wanting something from them for years and actually started to perspire and I’ll admit at the start my laser pointer was less than accurate.
Still, as the presentation wore on I began to get the sense that my worry that the reaction may have been chilly was a bit premature as there was a constant nodding, smiles of knowing agreement and interjections of thoughtful questions and comments which indicated that far from being skeptical and dismissive, these people were understanding the message. As I went through the first 15 slides of basic cellular biology followed by an explanation that the multitude of age-related diseases are related by being caused by only a few types of damage, these older individuals did not scream and run from the science. Quite the opposite. Many were knowledgeable about biology and those that weren’t, were astute enough to understand the concepts if not the jargon. The kicker was when I got to describing some of the cutting-edge research that I had been lucky enough to hear about at some of the SENS and aging conferences I’d been to the past few years. When I described the parabiosis experiment of Irina Conboy and the regnerating MRL mouse of Ellen Heber-Katz, their interest was piqued. When I made reference to the encouraging dissolution of plaques and restoration of cognitive ability in a mouse Alzheimer model by a new pill developed by Ashely Bush this year, they were intrigued. They asked pointed questions about timeframes and costs and jokingly asked what would happen if they didn’t live long enough to benefit, to which their own response was it could benefit their children. I think that about says it all.
After being asked if I would make the same presentation to their memberships in the different regions, being offered help in the form of sponsorship and even offers of help to organize events I’m planning, I was sincerely and extremely touched by the outpouring of support and encouragement I received from these individuals. They made me proud to be pursuing the mission of the Methuselah Foundation. Here were people, selflessly giving of their own time for their communities at ages between 65 and 85, talking about events for children, a Grandparent’s Day, making charitable donations and fundraising for grandparents in Africa who are left to raise their grandchildren because of AIDS. This is a resource of love and caring that the world forgoes to its own detriment when it can move to help their light burn a bit brighter and longer.
These people ‘got it’ in a way which seemed to escape many others who I’ve spoken to in exactly the same way. Could it be simply because they were older and perhaps suffering the effects of aging a bit more acutely than the fit, healthy baby-boomers I normally converse with? I think there might be an element of that in there, but much more important a role I think is the fact that these people were already giving of themselves to others. Theirs was already a compassionate path and thus they were primed for such a message for helping alleviate the suffering of millions. Additionally, with the perspective of almost three-quarters of a century, and having seen much science-fiction become science-fact these individuals have a bit more accurate frame of reference of the exponential progress of technology over the last century. They do not see the application of technology to curing age-related diseases ‘en masse’ as out of the question. There you have desirability coupled with feasbility to produce hope. They’re willing to think that it might be possible, they are willing to hope that it might be possible.
And hope makes all the difference.