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Why We Age—and Why We Don't Have To

David A. Sinclair, Matthew D. LaPlante

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  1. 432 páginas
  2. English
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eBook - ePub


Why We Age—and Why We Don't Have To

David A. Sinclair, Matthew D. LaPlante

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"Brilliant and enthralling."? —The Wall Street Journal A paradigm-shifting book from an acclaimed Harvard Medical School scientist and one of Time 's most influential people. It's a seemingly undeniable truth that aging is inevitable. But what if everything we've been taught to believe about aging is wrong? What if we could choose our lifespan?In this groundbreaking book, Dr. David Sinclair, leading world authority on genetics and longevity, reveals a bold new theory for why we age. As he writes: "Aging is a disease, and that disease is treatable."This eye-opening and provocative work takes us to the frontlines of research that is pushing the boundaries on our perceived scientific limitations, revealing incredible breakthroughs—many from Dr. David Sinclair's own lab at Harvard—that demonstrate how we can slow down, or even reverse, aging. The key is activating newly discovered vitality genes, the descendants of an ancient genetic survival circuit that is both the cause of aging and the key to reversing it. Recent experiments in genetic reprogramming suggest that in the near future we may not just be able to feel younger, but actually become younger.Through a page-turning narrative, Dr. Sinclair invites you into the process of scientific discovery and reveals the emerging technologies and simple lifestyle changes—such as intermittent fasting, cold exposure, exercising with the right intensity, and eating less meat—that have been shown to help us live younger and healthier for longer. At once a roadmap for taking charge of our own health destiny and a bold new vision for the future of humankind, Lifespan will forever change the way we think about why we age and what we can do about it.

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IMAGINE A PLANET ABOUT THE size of our own, about as far from its star, rotating around its axis a bit faster, such that a day lasts about twenty hours. It is covered with a shallow ocean of salty water and has no continents to speak of—just some sporadic chains of basaltic black islands peeking up above the waterline. Its atmosphere does not have the same mix of gases as ours. It is a humid, toxic blanket of nitrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide.
There is no oxygen. There is no life.
Because this planet, our planet as it was 4 billion years ago, is a ruthlessly unforgiving place. Hot and volcanic. Electric. Tumultuous.
But that is about to change. Water is pooling next to warm thermal vents that litter one of the larger islands. Organic molecules cover all surfaces, having ridden in on the backs of meteorites and comets. Sitting on dry, volcanic rock, these molecules will remain just molecules, but when dissolved in pools of warm water, through cycles of wetting and drying at the pools’ edges, a special chemistry takes place.1 As the nucleic acids concentrate, they grow into polymers, the way salt crystals form when a seaside puddle evaporates. These are the world’s first RNA molecules, the predecessors to DNA. When the pond refills, the primitive genetic material becomes encapsulated by fatty acids to form microscopic soap bubbles—the first cell membranes.2
It doesn’t take long, a week perhaps, before the shallow ponds are covered with a yellow froth of trillions of tiny precursor cells filled with short strands of nucleic acids, which today we call genes.
Most of the protocells are recycled, but some survive and begin to evolve primitive metabolic pathways, until finally the RNA begins to copy itself. That point marks the origin of life. Now that life has formed—as fatty-acid soap bubbles filled with genetic material—they begin to compete for dominance. There simply aren’t enough resources to go around. May the best scum win.
Day in and day out, the microscopic, fragile life-forms begin to evolve into more advanced forms, spreading into rivers and lakes.
Along comes a new threat: a prolonged dry season. The level of the scum-covered lakes has dropped by a few feet during the dry season, but the lakes have always filled up again as the rains returned. But this year, thanks to unusually intense volcanic activity on the other side of the planet, the annual rains don’t fall as they usually do and the clouds pass on by. The lakes dry up completely.
What remains is a thick, yellow crust covering the lake beds. It is an ecosystem defined not by the annual waxing and waning of the waters but by a brutal struggle for survival. And more than that: it is a fight for the future—because the organisms that survive will be the progenitors of every living thing to come: archaea, bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals.
Within this dying mass of cells, each scrapping for and scraping by on the merest minimums of nutrients and moisture, each one doing whatever it can to answer the primal call to reproduce, there is a unique species. Let’s call it Magna superstes. That’s Latin for “great survivor.”
It does not look very different from the other organisms of the day, but M. superstes has a distinct advantage: it has evolved a genetic survival mechanism.
There will be far more complicated evolutionary steps in the eons to come, changes so extreme that entire branches of life will emerge. These changes—the products of mutations, insertions, gene rearrangements, and the horizontal transfer of genes from one species to another—will create organisms with bilateral symmetry, stereoscopic vision, and even consciousness.
By comparison, this early evolutionary step looks, at first, to be rather simple. It is a circuit. A gene circuit.
The circuit begins with gene A, a caretaker that stops cells from reproducing when times are tough. This is key, because on early planet Earth, most times are tough. The circuit also has a gene B, which encodes for a “silencing” protein. This silencing protein shuts gene A off when times are good, so the cell can make copies of itself when, and only when, it and its offspring will likely survive.
The genes themselves aren’t novel. All life in the lake has these two genes. But what makes M. superstes unique is that the gene B silencer has mutated to give it a second function: it helps repair DNA. When the cell’s DNA breaks, the silencing protein encoded by gene B moves from gene A to help with DNA repair, which turns on gene A. This temporarily stops all sex and reproduction until the DNA repair is complete.
This makes sense, because while DNA is broken, sex and reproduction are the last things an organism should be doing. In future multicellular organisms, for instance, cells that fail to pause while fixing a DNA break will almost certainly lose genetic material. This is because DNA is pulled apart prior to cell division from only one attachment site on the DNA, dragging the rest of the DNA with it. If DNA is broken, part of a chromosome will be lost or duplicated. The cells will likely die or multiply uncontrollably into a tumor.
With a new type of gene silencer that repairs DNA, too, M. superstes has an edge. It hunkers down when its DNA is damaged, then revives. It is superprimed for survival.
THE EVOLUTION OF AGING. A 4-billion-year-old gene circuit in the first life-forms would have turned off reproduction while DNA was being repaired, providing a survival advantage. Gene A turns off reproduction, and gene B makes a protein that turns off gene A when it is safe to reproduce. When DNA breaks, however, the protein made by gene B leaves to go repair DNA. As a result, gene A is turned on to halt reproduction until repair is complete. We have inherited an advanced version of this survival circuit.
And that’s good, because now comes yet another assault on life. Powerful cosmic rays from a distant solar eruption are bathing the Earth, shredding the DNA of all the microbes in the dying lakes. The vast majority of them carry on dividing as if nothing has happened, unaware that their genomes have been broken and that reproducing will kill them. Unequal amounts of DNA are shared between mother and daughter cells, causing both to malfunction. Ultimately, the endeavor is hopeless. The cells all die, and nothing is left.
Nothing, that is, but M. superstes. For as the rays wreak their havoc, M. superstes does something unusual: thanks to the movement of protein B away from gene A to help repair the DNA breaks, gene A switches on and the cells stop almost everything else they are doing, turning their limited energy toward fixing the DNA that has been broken. By virtue of its defiance of the ancient imperative to reproduce, M. superstes has survived.
When the latest dry period ends and the lakes refill, M. superstes wakes up. Now it can reproduce. Again and again it does so. Multiplying. Moving into new biomes. Evolving. Creating generations upon generations of new descendants.
They are our Adam and Eve.
Like Adam and Eve, we don’t know if M. superstes ever existed. But my research over the past twenty-five years suggests that every living thing we see around us today is a product of this great survivor, or at least a primitive organism very much like it. The fossil record in our genes goes a long way to proving that every living thing that shares this planet with us still carries this ancient genetic survival circuit, in more or less the same basic form. It is there in every plant. It is there in every fungus. It is there in every animal.
It is there in us.
I propose the reason this gene circuit is conserved is that it is a rather simple and elegant solution to the challenges of a sometimes brutish and sometimes bounteous world that better ensures the survival of the organisms that carry it. It is, in essence, a primordial survival kit that diverts energy to the area of greatest need, fixing what exists in times when the stresses of the world are conspiring to wreak havoc on the genome, while permitting reproduction only when more favorable times prevail.
And it is so simple and so robust that not only did it ensure life’s continued existence on the planet, it ensured that Earth’s chemical survival circuit was passed on from parent to offspring, mutating and steadily improving, helping life continue for billions of years, no matter what the cosmos brought, and in many cases allowing individuals’ lives to continue for far longer than they actually needed to.
The human body, though far from perfect and still evolving, carries an advanced version of the survival circuit that allows it to last for decades past the age of reproduction. While it is interesting to speculate why our long lifespans first evolved—the need for grandparents to educate the tribe is one appealing theory—given the chaos that exists at the molecular scale, it’s a wonder we survive thirty seconds, let alone make it to our reproductive years, let alone reach 80 more often than not.
But we do. Marvelously we do. Miraculously we do. For we are the progeny of a very long lineage of great survivors. Ergo, we are great survivors.
But there is a trade-off. For this circuit within us, the descendant of a series of mutations in our most distant ancestors, is also the reason we age.
And yes, that definite singular article is correct: it is the reason.


If you are taken aback by the notion that there is a singular cause of aging, you are not alone. If you haven’t given any thought at all as to why we age, that’s perfectly normal, too. A lot of biologists haven’t given it much thought, either. Even gerontologists, doctors who specialize in aging, often don’t ask why we age—they simply seek to treat the consequences.
This isn’t a myopia specific to aging. As recently as the late 1960s, for example, the fight against cancer was a fight against its symptoms. There was no unified explanation for why cancer happens, so doctors removed tumors as best they could and spent a lot of time telling patients to get their affairs in order. Cancer was “just the way it goes,” because that’s what we say when we can’t explain something.
Then, in the 1970s, genes that cause cancer when mutated were discovered by the molecular biologists Peter Vogt and Peter Duesberg. These so-called oncogenes shifted the entire paradigm of cancer research. Pharmaceutical developers now had targets to go after: the tumor-inducing proteins encoded by genes, such as BRAF, HER2, and BCR-ABL. By inventing chemicals that specifically block the tumor-promoting proteins, we could finally begin to move away from using radiation and toxic chemotherapeutic agents to attack cancers at their genetic source, while leaving normal cells untouched. We certainly haven’t cured all types of cancer in the decades since then, but we no longer believe it’s impossible to do so.
Indeed, among an increasing number of cancer researchers, optimism abounds. And that hopefulness was at the heart of what was arguably the most memorable part of President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address in 2016.
“For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all,” Obama said as he stood in the House of Representatives chamber and called for a “cancer moon shot.” When he placed then Vice President Joe Biden—whose son Beau had died of brain cancer a year earlier—in charge of the effort, even some of the Democrats’ staunch political enemies had trouble holding back the tears.
In the days and weeks that followed, many cancer experts noted that it would take far more than the year remaining to the Obama-Biden administration to end cancer. Very few of those experts, however, said it absolutely couldn’t be done. And that’s because, in the span of just a few decades, we had completely changed the way we think about cancer. We no longer submit ourselves to its inevitability as part of the human condition.
One of the most promising breakthroughs in the past decade has been immune checkpoint therapy, or simply “immunotherapy.” Immune T-cells continually patrol our body, looking for rogue cells to identify and kill before they can multiply into a tumor. If it weren’t for T-cells, we’d all develop cancer in our twenties. But rogue cancer cells evolve ways to fool cancer-detecting T-cells so they can go on happily multiplying. The latest and most effective immunotherapies bind to proteins on the cancer cells’ surface. It is the equivalent of taking the invisible cloak off cancer cells so T-cells can recognize and kill them. Although fewer than 10 percent of all cancer patients currently benefit from immunotherapy, that number should increase thanks to the hundreds of trials currently in progress.
We continue to rail against a disease we once accepted as fate, pouring billions of dollars into research each year, and the effort is paying off. Survival rates for once lethal cancers are increasing dramatically. Thanks to a combination of a BRAF inhibitor and immunotherapy, survival of melanoma brain metastases, one of the deadliest types of cancer, has increased by 91 percent since 2011. Between 1991 and 2016, overall deaths from cancer in the United States declined by 27 percent and continue to fall.3 That’s a victory measured in millions of lives.
Aging research today is at a similar stage as cancer research was in the 1960s. We have a robust understanding of what aging looks like and what it does to us and an emerging agreement about what causes it and what keeps it at bay. From the looks of it, aging is not going to be that hard to treat, far easier than curing cancer.
Up until the second half of the twentieth century, it was generally accepted that organisms grow old and die “for the good of the species”—an idea that dates back to Aristotle, if not further. This idea feels quite intuitive. It is the explanation proffered by most people at parties.4 But it is dead wrong. We...