Life Extension: Science Fact or Science Fiction?

Bill just died of a heart attack at age 67. His brother, Jim, twelve years older, still enjoys playing golf once a week. Why is Jim living so much longer? Does he take after their mother's family who all lived into their eighties? Or, does he just have a healthier lifestyle?

What makes people grow old? How can we live longer? Why do members of some families seem to live longer than others? Can people live to 150 years old? Would you want to? These questions have fascinated people for centuries. Now scientists who study aging, called gerontologists, are trying to answer them.

Genes now being studied may one day answer some of these questions. Genes might be considered little packets of information found in each cell in our bodies. These packets contain instructions that tell our bodies how to grow and work. For example, they control whether we get our grandmother's blue eyes or our father's crooked little finger. For some people genes may affect how long they live.

Areas of Research

Several "longevity genes" have been found in some living organisms. Scientists studying certain worms and fruit flies have found several genes that seem to control how long these creatures live. By making a change in just one of these genes, they have almost doubled the average lifespan of both fruit flies and one type of worm. Others looking at longevity genes have shown that the gene already shown to control how fast yeast cells age may do the same thing in mice. This gene is also present in humans. As interesting as this work is, it is unlikely that changing genes will be tried in humans in the near future as a way to help them live longer.