By Anupama Bhattacharya March 1999 Reverse aging. Erase the genetic suicide code. Link your mind to a computer. Or step out of the human chrysalis and seek the wings of an everlasting life. A life of immortality. Longevity Tips1. Exercise regularly. 2. Eat less and have a healthy diet with minimal fat. 3. Engage your brain in challenging activities such as crosswords, quizzes, intelligent discussions. 4. Avoid too much of sun. 5. Avoid stress-inducing situations. 6. Meditate regularly to relax your mind. 7. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and other such products. PREDICTED MAXIMUM LIFE SPANS OF HUMANS IF THE THERMOSTAT IN THE BRAIN WHICH CONTROLS BODY TEMPERATURE COULD BE RESET FROM THE PRESENT 98.6º TO LOWER LEVELS TemperatureMaximum Life Span 98.6º F 120 years95.0º F 160 years91.4º F 200 years87.8º F 280 years Would you like to die? Or live on even as time stretches to its ultimate limit. Mortal stars collapse to their nebulous cores. Worlds die and worlds are born. But you live on—immortal, eternal, Godlike. Perhaps a little lonely. Like the Wandering Jew who trudges his way through millennia. Like Ashwatthama, cursed with eternal life. For most of us, the choice has already been made. Unless we refuse water to a Christ, avenge a father cunningly killed, or take the insidious path of vampirism, we can’t attain that dreaded—and desired—five syllable word: immortality. Or can we? Theoretically, immortality is possible. After all, if the human species can raise its average life span from 25 years in the medieval times to 64 years today, there is no reason why we cannot extend it indefinitely. Except that then the maximum life span was about 120 years. It is so even now. The cells of our body are fated for collective suicide. Or so believes science. This internal suicide program is triggered off after a certain age and our system begins to collapse. This, immaterial of whether we have lived an ideal life or existed on junk food, black coffee and cigarettes. Part of the clue, perhaps, is hidden in our evolutionary scheme. According to Carlos Castaneda, best-selling author and self-proclaimed sorcerer, bearing children creates holes in people’s luminosity (an aura-like layer around the body), which depletes their energy levels. Science validates it—if not exactly in terms of luminosity. Apparently, on the evolutionary balance sheet, longevity deducts from fecundity. According to a study conducted by Rudi Westendorp of the Netherlands and Thomas Kirkwood of the University of Manchester, women who postpone their pregnancy are likely to live longer. Even those who have fewer children or none at all make better candidates for longevity. If it sounds unbelievable, consider this: the adrenal glands of the Pacific salmon release a massive amount of corticoid hormones into the bloodstream just after they spawn. This ages them immediately: they wither and die. The octopus glands are not even that considerate. The eight-limbed mollusk gets its hormone overdose immediately after mating. But if you restrict their amorous instincts, both species live longer. There is a catch here. If a species wants to procreate and evolve, it has to die faster—to make way for future generations as well as allow faster genetic mutations during natural selection. It also works the other way. In a research conducted at the University of Colorado, scientists modified a specific gene, Age-1, that was responsible for aging a roundworm. The result? The roundworm’s life span increased by a mind-boggling 70 per cent—and its fertility dropped by 80 per cent. Even male fruit flies that mated with more females, had a shorter life span. DEADLY IMMORTALS Nature’s practical jokes extend further. Why else should almost 20 per cent of humanity be wiped out by what is truly immortal in us? A human cell can divide and replace itself up to about 50 times (also known as the Hayflick limit). The only exceptions are the cancer cells that have somehow superseded nature’s suicide code. These cells can be kept alive and dividing in the lab till the edge of eternity. In fact, a few cells obtained from Baltimore-based Henrietta Lacks, who died of cancer in 1951, have now gone up to billions and are alive in laboratories around the world, still dividing profusely. A curious kind of immortality! But since none of us would appreciate eternal life as a tumor, the only other way to break the Hayflick limit is to get a dose of telomerase, the wonder drug. It all started when a group of scientists from the University of Texas found that adding an enzyme called telomerase to normal human cells allowed them to continue dividing 20 times longer—without triggering off tumors. What prompted the experiment was the discovery that portions of telomeres, the end parts of DNA strands, fall out with each cell division. When no telomere is left, the cell ceases to divide. Restoring it artificially could allow the cells to divide beyond the Hayflick limit. Cheating nature, however, might not be that easy. While telomeres might keep the cells alive for a longer time, there is another clock ticking away in our body. The irony is, if we stop the clock, time may pass us by while we stand rooted to the crossroads of evolution, unable to move on. This time, the culprit is the DNA repair system in our body. The DNA in every cell is constantly being damaged and repaired. But like a faulty plumber, the repair process is far from perfect. ‘Aging is simply a byproduct of the repair deficit,’ says Roy L. Walford, a USA-based gerontologist. But the defect also leaves scope for mutation-and thus evolution. If we perfect the repair system, chances are we would remain as we are—till time itself ceases to be. Are we perfect enough to afford this risk? IN SEARCH OF LIFE Maybe not. There lies the trap of hubris. Why else should the human race, even before it was out of its nappy state of evolution, search for that elusive fountain of youth? Adam and Eve were thrown out of Eden lest they eat of the tree of life. Gilgamesh, the ancient adventurer king, found the fruit of life and lost it. Similar exploits abound in myths, lores and stories, which only go to show how desperate mankind has been to cling on to life. The modern search for immortality is taking one step at a time in its lesser avatar: gerontology. Though the 19th century neurologist Jean Martin Charcot could be broadly credited for beginning a study of aging, it was Dr I.G. Nascher who coined the term geriatrics in 1914 and is known as the father of geriatrics. The actual experiments, however, go back much further. From ancient Egyptian recipes for rejuvenation with pastes of semiprecious stones (Smith Papyrus, 2900 B.C.) to medieval alchemic concoctions of gold, withered flesh of mummies, viper meat and children’s blood—the seekers of eternal life tried it all. Such was the desire for life that in ancient Rome, doddering old people would suck the blood of dying gladiators, believing it would prolong their own life. Indians, in their own mystical way, steered clear of worldly goodies and sought immortality through a mythical herb, soma. Susruta Samhita, the ancient Ayurvedic treatise, gives detailed instructions on how to use soma for kaya kalpa(rejuvenation): ‘Vomiting marks the digestion of the soma juice. After he has vomited blood-streaked, worm infested matter, milk boiled and cooled should be given to him…’ This is followed by a description of how the body cleans itself of impurities. Next comes a falling of hair, nails and skin, giving way to new skin and organs, each fresh and totally rejuvenated. The Susruta Samhita states: ‘Such a person bears a charmed life against fire, water, poison and weapons, and develops great muscular energy,’ which enable him to ‘witness ten thousand summers on earth in the full enjoyment of a new and youthful body.’ Wow! But there is a catch. The soma plants are ‘invisible to the impious or the ungrateful, as well as to the unbeliever in the curative virtues of medicine…’ The West was more down-to-earth in its approach to immortality. In the not-so-distant past (1882, to be accurate), 72-year-old Edouard Brown-Sequard, a professor at Harvard, claimed that he had regained his youth and virility after injecting himself with the crushed testicles of a dog. Next came Elie Metchnikoff, a Nobel laureate, who claimed that aging is caused by poisoning from putrefying toxic products in the stomach. His remedy? Drink large amounts of sour milk or yogurt to ameliorate the putrefaction. If that wasn’t enough, some longevity-freaks tried inserting flashlights into their anus. This, they claimed, gave a surge of vitality to the body. No wonder, at one time gerontologists were looked upon as less-than-respect-able, frustrated Fausts—minus the helpful Mephistopheles. THE AGING FACTOR Science indicates that we age with every breath we take—literally. ‘It is surprising that oxygen, which is essential for life, can be tremendously damaging in its free radical form,’ says Delhi-based Dr Kalyan Bagchi, president, Society for Gerontological Research. Free radicals are oxidants that damage tissues and cell membranes. Which is why life on earth contains enzymes that detoxify free radicals—but not totally. Hence we age. That’s as far as external factors go. But there is also considerable debate on which part of our body activates the suicide code. Though some believe that the clock of aging lurks in the thymus, a yellowish triangle located beneath the breastbone, Dr Caleb Finch of the University of Southern California points his finger at the hypothalamus, a pea-sized area of brain midway behind the ears. You can, however, check the aging process to a certain ex
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