In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the Brad Pitt movie that will be released tomorrow, a boy is born an old man. As he grows old in years, his body becomes younger.
If the film, based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, isn’t pretending to be realistic, it does strike at the oldest of human fantasies – one scientists and charlatans have tried to fulfill for all of recorded history: the ability to reverse the aging process.
“Aging results from the accumulation of dysfunctional molecules that, after reproductive maturation, exceed the capacity for their repair,” Len Hayflick, an anatomy professor at the University of California, San Francisco, tells ScientificAmerican.com. "If the protagonist is born with the molecular and cellular errors that define aging, then the repair processes are similarly dysfunctional. To assume that the aged individual is becoming younger the damaged repair processes must mysteriously become more efficient — which doesn't happen in reality."
Centuries ago, anti-aging practitioners advocated caloric restriction — a strategy still promoted today that may extend your life but not make you more youthful — and eating gold, pearl, and coral, Jay Olshansky, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, notes in a "Cult of Immortality" debate on BBC.com.
These days, the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) project is trying to affect or repair the process of molecular and cellular damage that causes aging. Human growth hormone has also been touted as a restorative elixir, even though research has indicated that it can't turn back the clock. (Its use outside of specified conditions such as growth deficiency in kids and AIDS patients also is illegal.) Dozens of scientists six years ago penned a position paper, posted on ScientificAmerican.com, expressing concern that the marketing of many anti-aging medical products "often misrepresents the science."
The "fountain of youth" concept has also been complicated by the idea that reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer "is the same as reversing aging," Olshansky says. But while improved medical technology may improve the outcome of those diseases, rising levels of obesity among U.S. children threaten to roll back life expectancy, he says.
“Don’t age, don’t grow old, and don’t die – that's what they promise you,” Olshansky says of the age-defiers. “How ridiculous is that? The one common characteristic of all anti-aging practitioners of the past is that they're all dead.”
photo of Brad Pitt by KJB Photography, via Flickr