This week on X10, Giuliano asks if it’s possible to age forever without rejuvenating or dying, echoing the ancient Greek myth of Tithonus – and discussing how real-world degenerative diseases work as well.
A transcript of this episode is available below.
Imagine what life would be like if you were immortal, but you kept growing biologically older and older, becoming more decrepit and sick every day for ever and ever. It doesn’t sound particularly appealing, and it’s one of the reasons why some people are scared of life extension: they worry that it could lead to this nightmarish scenario, but their worries are misplaced. It won’t happen because it can’t happen.
We’ve already explained in previous videos that life extension is about extending youthful health, not decrepitude, and that a longer lifespan is simply a logical consequence of not being sick for a longer time, but might it be possible, in principle, to extend your life indefinitely without extending youth indefinitely?
Spoiler alert: the answer is no, but let’s dig a little bit deeper into the details. Eternal life with ever-increasing decrepitude is the focus of the Greek myth of Tithonus, a Trojan prince who was the lover of Eos, the enchanting goddess of the dawn.
Like any deity worth the name, Eos was immortal, whereas Tithonus was just a human, and hence mortal; eventually, Tithonus’ inevitable death would put an end to their love story, which brought Eos to plead with Zeus, the father of the gods, to make Tithonus immortal too.
As they say, be careful what you wish for; you might just get it. And get it she certainly did, as Zeus did grant Tithonus immortality, but he did not grant him a teeny tiny little thing which Eos forgot to ask for: eternal youth. As you can imagine, this ain’t gonna end well.
For as long as Tithonus was young, he and Eos had a good time together, but as he started showing the first signs of aging, she kinda stopped fancying him; as told in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, eventually “hateful old age was pressing hard on him, with all its might, and he couldn’t move his limbs, much less lift them up.”
And since he was immortal, he could never die, forever stuck in a body that grew every day more decrepit, with ever-worsening health and increasing disabilities. At that point, Eos chose to lock him up in a bedroom inside her palace, presumably to protect him, and from that room, he went on babbling away incoherently for ever and ever.
According to other tellings, Tithonus was turned into a cricket or a cicada, whose relentless chirping was in fact his begging for death to take him. That didn’t improve his relationship with Eos very much.
Is any of this possible in the real world? No. Aging forever without dying is just as fictional as turning into a cricket.
Extending life without doing much against decrepitude isn’t entirely impossible; geriatric medicine does precisely that in humans, and scientists even managed to significantly extend the life of aged C. Elegans worms, which lived much longer than their average but spent that extra time essentially immobile; however, you can’t extend life indefinitely if aging keeps ravaging your body, and the reason is simple.
Biological aging is the result of different processes of damage accumulation at the cellular and molecular level, and living forever while aging biologically would imply that your body would become more and more damaged with the passing of time yet never damaged enough to stop functioning altogether.
For example, one of these processes is the accumulation of senescent cells—dysfunctional cells that have stopped replicating and spew out a bunch of toxic chemicals that cause inflammation, among other troubles.
The number of cells in your body is huge but finite, and if senescent cells kept accumulating, you’d eventually get to a point where all of them would be senescent, which means that no cell in your body would divide or properly perform its function—and the increasing physical deterioration would kill you long before that.
The depletion of stem cell reservoirs, another of the aging processes, would similarly result in the inability to build new tissue and maintain organs and eventually death—which obviously can’t go on forever, because once you don’t have stem cells anymore, you are certainly not going to go negative.
As a last example, consider genomic instability—the accumulation of unwanted mutations to your DNA. Never-ending aging would mean more and more mutations accumulating in your genome, which would almost certainly result in deadly cancer well before your entire genome became unusable.
In essence, if the human body aged forever, it would eventually reach such a state of disarray that it would stop functioning altogether, more commonly known as death. Eternal life without eternal youth may happen in myths, but not in the real world.
The story of Tithonus was probably a cautionary tale about the alleged perils of trying to cheat death, but the ancient Greek didn’t know what we know—a ton of things, including not only what we’ve just explained, but also how aging actually works. One thing the Greek surely did know about aging, as said in the same poem, is that “it is baneful, it wears you down, and even the gods shrink back from it.”
Hold your horses, though—we may know a lot more about how aging works than the ancient Greek did, but we don’t know the whole story, and we’ve definitely not defeated aging yet.
If you’d like to help scientists understand aging in ever more detail and find a way to throw it into the underworld of medical conditions, you can do so by becoming a Lifespan Hero and supporting our advocacy and crowdfunding activities to speed up the research. If you’d like to learn more about aging and rejuvenation with us, head over to youtube.com/lifespanio and subscribe.