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The quest for immortality is one that has enticed, motivated, and moved humankind from the very beginning. We have always wanted to escape the inescapable, deter the undeterred, avoid the unavoidable and live forever. We dreamed about eternal life, created entities that were eternal, books, poems, art – we, as a species, are obsessed. But is it actually possible to live forever? How can we be immortal?
The first path usually taken when attempting to answer this question is the biological pathway. What is immortality, from a biological stance? Immortality is living forever, avoiding death. Thus it follows that if we want to be immortal, we must first escape death itself. So, how can we avoid death? Why do we die? To answer this, it helps to think of the body as a machine. As it goes through its normal, everyday functions, it suffers from wear and tear, the way any machine would. The body has mechanisms for dealing with this damage, but over time, they become less effective. As a result, our muscles weaken, our bones break, we fall sick more often, and eventually, our body just can’t go on, and we die. So the answer to living forever lies in somehow extending the life of these repair mechanisms, and stopping the effects of aging.
There are a lot of potential ways to slow down aging. Senescent cells are zombie cells that are formed after a cell divides and its chromosomes do not have any telomeres left (to protect genetic material). These cells don’t die, accumulate inside the body and have been linked to a number of diseases that come with old age, such as diabetes and kidney failure. There are a number of studies looking at ways to kill off these senescent cells, as that would theoretically extend the life of humans, perhaps indefinitely. Studies involving older mice that had their senescent cells killed became much healthier; some even regrew lost hair! There is a lot of research in this field and human trials are slated to begin soon. NAD+ is a coenzyme that tells our cells to look after themselves. As we age, there are less and less of these in our bodies. Since we the coenzyme doesn’t pass through cell walls, there are currently many studies looking at other enzymes that can enter cells and then be turned into NAD+ inside the cell itself. This would also set back aging and allow us to live longer, perhaps even forever. Another field of research regarding the extension of lifespans is stem cells. Stem cells are cells with the potential to develop into any other cell that is found in certain parts of the body. As we grow older, these cells become increasingly scarce. In mice, scientists observed that as they grew older, stem cells decreased, and the mice started to develop diseases. The scientist then took stem cells from young mice and injected them directly into the hypothalamus of the older mice. The new stem cells were found to invigorate the mice. After four months, the brain and muscles worked better than those of untreated and they lived longer.
What all this tells us is that while there is no silver bullet to stop aging, we can potentially clear out senescent cells, fill the space with fresh new stem cells all while regulating the metabolism of these cells with NAD+.
While this research looks promising, we must concede that not only is this all theoretical, as it has yet to be proven effective in humans. It should also be noted that these “cures” have not necessarily stopped aging. They seem to have the potential to slow aging, but in every one of the trials conducted so far, the subjects eventually died, regardless of how many stem cells or NAD+ they were given. It would seem that the biological approach is not the answer to death.
An important point must be clarified: in our previous discussions of achieving immortality, we always referred to extending life as it pertains to the body. We examined aging and how to slow it down, with the goal of eventually stopping it. But can life be reduced to just the body? Is immortality only achieved if the body remains alive?
Our bodies are constantly in flux. All of the body’s cells die and are replaced multiple times in a lifetime. All of our skin cells are replaced every 27 days. The cells in the liver replace themselves every 150 to 500 days. In fact, we replace almost every cell in our bodies every 7-15 years. As such, it is more fitting to think of the body as a stream of particles, as opposed to a solid unit. Every day, we take in particles which become a part of us, and we release particles that leave us. Thus, we cannot be reduced to our bodies.
This distinction is important because it is when we leave the body behind that we really start to make progress in the search of eternal life. When we leave the body behind, we open up the opportunity to live digitally. There is research being done in regards to the feasibility of transporting the human consciousness into data that can then be kept indefinitely. There is also the topic of cryonics – the idea that a person at death should be frozen until a time where science can revive them. Though this is currently not a viable solution to living forever, it should be mentioned in this discussion.
But again, do we need to live to be immortal? In Homer’s the Illiyad, Archillies is given the option between eternal life or eternal glory. He chooses eternal glory because he realizes that long after his death, he will still be remembered. People will keep saying his name, and by doing so they realize his existence. Thus Achilles has never truly died, because of the millions of 9th graders who read about his exploits and remember him and thus bring a part of him back to us.
We don’t truly die until we are forgotten. The ancient Egyptians called this the second death – when their names would be forgotten. As Einstein said, “our deaths are not the end, as we can live on in our children because they are us. And our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life.” In our human search for immortality, we focus on out bodies. We assume that the only way to achieve immortality is to physically live forever when that is not the case. We can live together in other people.
To achieve immortality, we must make our mark on history. We must we change the world in a way that our names are etched in history so long as humans continue to live. Be it in a work of literature or art so epic that it becomes a timeless staple of the human experience, an invention that fundementally changes human society, or even an idea that shifts the very understanding of the human being – they all serve to help achieve a sort of immortality. So let us beat on, and change the world around us. Let us strive to make such an impact that ut names are etched in the stars forever; let us become immortals.
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