Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Cyber-Immortality and Testosterone: The Quest for a Modern Day “Fountain of Youth”

As far as I am concerned, Woody Allen hit the nail on the head with regard to achieving immortality:

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying."

The idea of living forever seems fantastical, absurd, and even potentially undesirable – yet it is a concept that has haunted mankind throughout literature, art, and even history. Raised to believe death is inevitable; would you take immortality given the chance? And more to the point, why haven’t we figured it out yet?

Considering we have been searching for a solution since the 5th Century BC, old Herodotus speculating at the existence of an Ethiopian fountain of youth, one would think that we might have cracked it by now. Indeed, from the fountain of youth, to the Holy Grail, to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone, eternal life has been on our minds.
Now whilst some might be satisfied with myths, fantasies, and worldwide bestsellers, I demand some more substantial evidence that we are making progress in the area.

In many ways, things are looking promising:
The average life expectancy – thanks to our friends in the medical and sanitation industries – has more than doubled in the past 200 years. In the 1800’s we could expect to live to a meager 35, barely enough time to pay off the mortgage. Now in the UK we luxuriate with 81 years on average – and we still only rank 29th worldwide! Jeanne Calment, the Usane Bolt of Living for a really long time, made it to 122 years old. It is even now thought that the first person who will make it to 150 years of age has already been born. If our life expectancy could more than double in 200 years, could it do so again? In 2200 will our great great great great grandchildren be celebrating their 162nd birthdays?

Unfortunately diseases related to aging, like Heart disease or Alzheimer’s, currently stand between us and the glorious prospect living longer than those smug Gal├ípagos tortoises. Our bodies wear out – and many researchers believe there is a limit to the age we can achieve. Luckily, there might just be a solution. Get rid of these pesky things called bodies.

Ray Kurzweil, American author, computer scientist, and head of engineering at Google, looks forward to an event that he dubs “the singularity” - the point at which we become Humans 2.0, Humans at one with machines. Flesh, blood and bone aren’t particularly durable – and he suggests we adopt something with a little more longevity.
Whilst this might seem like science fiction, it is interesting to note that out his 109 predictions, 89 have come true. These include translating telephones which allow people to speak to each other in different languages, books being read on screens, and chess software beating human players.
For all this optimism and idealism –it would seem that unfortunately there are some enormous hurdles standing between us and immortality.
Our computers today do not mirror the architecture of the brain – digitalizing information is one thing, but our brains learn, develop, and adapt to new situations. Dr. Michio Kaku believes that this is not something we will see in machines in our lifetime. This is not even to mention the other technical, ethical and socio-economic issues that stand between us and our robot-selves
So is there another way? Whilst technology might afford us immortality in years to come, it is not obvious when, and exactly how it might do this. Instead we might find solace in turning to the world of pharmaceuticals. Whilst this industry might not yet be able to provide with the answer for eternal life, might it provide us with the stepping stones?  
In recent years there has been a boom in hormone therapy, especially with regard to boosting “low T levels” in men. Essentially, a slow and gradual decline of testosterone (or “T”) production is a normal and generally expected process as men age. However, often it comes with rather unsavoury results. From diminished sex drive, to reduced muscle mass, a deficiency in hormone “T” is often regarded as one of the burdens of ageing.

It has been established that a man’s testosterone levels peak in his 20s, and then fall by 1-2% per year. The process of ageing, and testosterone levels seem to be inextricably linked. What happens then, if we reverse this process; if instead of declining, you maintain a high “T” level? Certainly companies like The Low T Centre like to believe that they have stumbled upon a hormone filled fountain of youth. With the promise of “Power, performance, and passion,” the plosive marketing label seems to embody the vitality we crave as our bodies start to crumble.

Yet much like Ponce de Leon’s endeavour to find the fountain of youth, it seems the age-reversing effect of “T” might be misleading. Whilst U.S prescription testosterone sales might have hit 2.4 billion in 2013 (predicted to reach 3.8 billion by 2018) the treatments being used are yet to gain FDA approval. As Andrea Fischer bluntly expressed in a statement for TIME magazine:

“There are no testosterone drugs approved as a treatment for low testosterone levels, often referred to as “Low T” without an associated medical condition.”

Considering the FDA have still to conduct large-scale, randomized clinical trials, many Doctors have a hard time trusting the positive effects of testosterone therapy. Several smaller trials indicate that Testosterone therapy could be having an adverse effect on men’s health, and Canada’s health authorities even issued a warning stating that “T” therapy could lead to “serious and possible life-threatening heart and blood vessel problems, such as heart attack, stroke, blood clots and increased or irregular heart rate.” While there have been trials which indicate that “T” therapy does not elevate the risk of heart disease, in our quest for immortality we must remain suspicious of any possible side-effects.
Indeed the question of “T” therapy increasing the risk of cancers sets alarm bells ringing. Some Doctors “fear that testosterone could inflame undetected tumours.”[1] Even more sinister is the suspected correlation to the severity of prostate cancer growth rate. Bearing in mind prostate cancer is the leading cause of death amongst ageing men – one might compare testosterone treatment, as David Von Drehle did, to dropping matches onto a “dry forest floor.”

As large scale clinical trials have yet to be conducted, these theories can largely be described as conjecture – yet the fact still remains, very little is known about the actual effects of testosterone treatment. 
Questions have even been raised as to whether the secret to the supposed age-defying effects lies in the marketing! When provided with an invigorating, libido-boosting miracle treatment, men find themselves motivated to exercise, lose weight, and eventually even see the return of the libido they enjoyed in their younger years. Whilst testosterone obviously does have an impact on the body, (most noticeable of course during puberty), many speculate that it is simply the promise of a new, invigorated lifestyle that provokes the traditional placebo effect. Does the expectation of vitality induce the effect? Does the fountain then, dwell in our own minds?
As it stands, the use of testosterone to fend off the effects age is a veritable mine-field of untested, and possibly placebic treatments. Even if it does restore elements of formative years, can we ever realistically claim that this hormone is the key to immortality?

So, to date, our technology cannot successfully mimic the human mind, nor can the pharmaceutical industry guarantee the rejuvenation of age. So where the do we turn?

Potentially one might be tempted by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation - “the world leader in cryonics, cryonics research, and cryonics technology.” In other words – you follow in the footsteps of Walt Disney and freeze yourself until they figure out this immortality malarkey.

The author: Cameron Anderson, Branding Science summer intern, 2014

[1] Time Magazine – David Von Drehle