Last week I tried to write a blog about the terribly old people who feature in the Bible but I got side-tracked by Dr Aubrey De Grey. I don’t mind being side-tracked. I do, after all, have another century (at least) left to fill. So, at the risk of wandering off the path once more, I would like to acknowledge the following comment left at the bottom of last week’s words:
“As Aubrey points out we have discovered seven biochemical processes which are the root causes of the damage which accumulates from aging. The first was discovered in the mid 1950s and last was discovered almost 30 years ago in 1981, taking into consideration that a greater amount of time has now passed since the discovery of the last of the seven than it took to discover the entire list and then factor in the massive increase in our knowledge of biology that has taken place over that time and it seems quite likely that these seven causes are all there are - crack those and it is highly likely we will have cracked aging!”
Did you hear that? “We will have cracked aging!”
Dr Johnty, the man who wrote this, goes on to explain the seven things that normally kill us and what we can do to stop each of them. I’ve included all that in a footnote on the bottom of the blog* – feel free to have a look – but the main point is that Dr Johnty thinks Aubrey might be right. So it’s not just Aubrey! Another doctor believes it! ‘Aging’, this new doctor says, ‘is no different to any other disease and like all diseases aging is ultimately treatable.’
In fact, he goes on to say, ‘we cannot afford to sit back and accept it. Everyone in history has lived and died but it is a mistake to view aging as a fact of life set in stone when science has progressed to the level where we have the ability to search for a cure.’ I like this attitude a lot. From now on, I certainly won’t be sitting back and accepting the aging process. I will punch it in the face until it goes away. I will become the Oldest Man in the World!
So, the Bible then. In the spirit of believing Dr Aubrey’s science, I’ve decided also to believe that the very aged people in the appropriately named Old Testament did actually live for centuries. Why not? We only live once (obviously, this is also up for discussion), what’s the point of being cynical? Remember, my only aim here is to become the Oldest Man in the World. That’s all I want to do. So I’m going to gulp down any positive propaganda on longevity I can lay my hands on.
WIkipedia (yes, I’ve been looking at Wikipedia again) has a useful list of the Top Fifty Old Biblical characters, at the top of which sits the mighty Methuselah; not a bad name for a baby, and not a bad age to live to – 969 years. Although I can’t help thinking he must have been gutted not to have made it to the millennium (dying just my own comparatively tiny life-span short).
There’s not all that much written about Methuselah considering he lived for longer than the period I studied for GCSE history. It seems he died just a week before the beginning of the Great Flood (again, frustrating; after living that long he probably would have enjoying seeing something he’d never seen before). In fact, according to some Bible readers, God actually delayed the Flood specially so that there could be seven days of mourning for this extraordinarily long-lived man. That was nice.
Apart from that, the Bible mainly lays out in quite bald detail Methuselah’s tall family tree (Genesis 5:21-27, Chronicles 1:3 and Luke 3:37). The headline news is that he was the son of Enoch and grandfather of Noah, but I always like reading paragraphs that feature the word ‘begat’ a lot. So here’s the actual bit from Genesis:
(21) And Enoch lived sixty and five years, and begat Methuselah: (22) And Enoch walked with God after he begat Methuselah three hundred years, and Methuselah begat sons and daughters: (23) And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years: (24) And Enoch walked with God: and he [was] not; for God took him. (25) And Methuselah lived an hundred eighty and seven years, and begat Lamech: (26) And Methuselah lived after he begat Lamech seven hundred eighty and two years, and begat sons and daughters: (27) And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years: and he died.
There it is. Quite a pithy summary of a life but not much doubt about it. Methuselah lived nine hundred sixty and nine years. And he died. Seven hundred and eighty two years after having his last kids.
So, as someone attempting to become the current Oldest Man in the World, I want to know Methuselah’s secret. How did he live that long? If I even live half as long as him I’ll have a jolly good shot at the record.
Well, as you can probably imagine, there are several theories about his age knocking about (yahoo’s answer service is always a good start, I find).
They can, I think, be boiled down to the following seven-point idea broth:
1) These long-living Old Testament types (Patriarchs, to give them their proper title) simply had a better diet than us. If this is the case, does anyone know what people ate back then? I need some of that stuff.
2) There was some sort of something protecting the earth from the sun’s radiation at the time – which was then destroyed in the Flood. This something is often called a ‘firmament’, sometimes a ‘water vapour canopy’ and occasionally a ‘celestial sphere’. It looked, I like to imagine, like the Millennium Dome. If this is the case, anyone want to help me build another firmament? Even just over my house?
3) Our DNA has gradually deteriorated since this era, so now we’re far more susceptible to the likes of cancer and heart disease and car crashes. If this is the case, I need scientists to crack on with the anti-aging science remedies, please.
4) Man was originally meant to live forever. But then Adam and Eve introduced sin (naughty) so life was limited, first to around a thousand years. This sin became even stronger (naughtier) over the next few generations so this time-limit was cut first to 500 years, then 250, then 100. So, Noah’s son Shem only lived to 600, his son (Arphaxad) lived to just 438 years old, his son (Salah) barely broke the 400 mark, then Abraham died at the meagre age of 175 and Moses was only 120 when he passed on, not even as old as our own Jeanne Calment (who died in 1997, aged 122). If this is the case, can we all stop being naughty please? Also, if this is the case, and if Dr Aubrey is also right and we do start living for centuries again, does that mean we’ve finally been forgiven for Adam and Eve’s apple shenanigans? That would be nice too.
5) Someone translated it wrong. They didn’t mean 969 years, they meant 969 months, so he would actually have been 78½ when he died. Unfortunately, if this is the case, Enoch would have managed to spawn Methuselah when he was just five years old.
6) These great ages actually represent an epoch in which these great men were particularly prominent. So when it says Methuselah died at the age of 969, it really means that his reputation lasted that long. If this is the case, that’s a bit of a shame. I don’t think the Guinness Book of Records would accept me as the Oldest Man in the World just because people were still talking about me in the year 2150 (otherwise I’d start thinking about doing something extremely memorable – like inventing something terrific, being King/Prime Minister/Elvis or doing something very bad indeed).
7) The Bible is simply a story – not just The Good Book but a good book. In stories it’s ok to have somebody who is extremely old, in just the same way that the BFG was extremely tall and Scrooge was extremely miserly. If this is the case, well, fair enough.
So that’s it. Food for thought, certainly. The good news is that both SCIENCE and RELIGION seem to think extreme old age is eminently possible. My target of 150 years seems easily achievable compared to what Aubrey and Methuselah are talking about. So I’m still on track!
*1. Cell death and atrophy: Treatable with exercise, stem cells, and chemicals which stimulate cell division.
2. Cancerous cells: Theoretically treatable with a type of gene therapy being developed, called Whole Body Interdiction of Lengthening of Telomeres (WILT).
3. Mutant mitochondria: Mutated DNA in the mitochondria causes a number of diseases. These can be prevented by moving the mitochondrial DNA into the cell nucleus, where the rest of the DNA resides.
4. Cell senescence (unwanted cells): Fat cells and other unwanted cruft can be removed surgically, or by stimulating the immune system to attack unwanted cells.
5. Extracellular crosslinks (loss of elasticity): Certain proteins, such as those in cells making up the arteries, become too rigid over time because they bond to each other. These bonds can be broken with certain chemicals (some in clinical trials even today).
6 Extracellular junk: “Plaque” which collects between cells can be eliminated by stimulating the immune system, and/or by using peptides called “beta-breakers.”
7. Intracellular junk: Molecular garbage can be prevented from overwhelming certain cells by introducing enzymes which are known to be effective against such molecules.