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People June 6, 2017

Death and Ageing

“If you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up.”

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky –



Last April, Indonesian man Mbah Gotho passed away having just four months’ earlier celebrated what is believed to be his 146th birthday. It was reported that he had started to prepare for his passing as early as 1992, even having his tombstone made, and while there is said to be documentation confirming his birth of 31 December, 1870 in a small village in the Central Java province, it is yet to be independently verified.


Until then, Jeanne Calment remains listed by the Guinness World Records as history’s oldest person. The Frenchwoman died in 1997 aged 122, having lived through two world wars and watched the Eiffel Tower being built. (There have been other claimants to the title such as Nigerian James Olofintuyi and Ethopian Dhaqabo Eba, whose apparent ages of 171 and 163 could not be authenticated by paperwork.) Calment put her longevity down to her active lifestyle, healthy diet, and the odd glass of wine, but astonishingly, she smoked from the age of 21 until she was 117.



When asked what his secret was, Gotho simply replied “patience”.


Barring an accident or unfortunate disease, most who eat well and exercise regularly can reasonably expect to make 80, but beyond that, much is down to the lottery of our genes (Jeanne Calment’s lengthy nicotine habit goes some way to backing that up), or, more specifically our telomeres.


“If you think of your chromosomes — which carry your genetic material — as shoelaces, telomeres are the little protective tips at the end,” molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, who won a Nobel Prize for her work on the subject, tells the Guardian. Telomeres comprise repeating sequences of DNA protected by certain proteins, and during our lifetime they wear down, reducing their ability to protect our chromosomes which leads to cell deterioration — this is essentially ageing.



A paper published by the National Center for Biotechnology reports factors such as obesity, stress, pollution, and smoking all contribute to the shortening of telomeres, to “affect the pace of aging and onset of age-associated diseases such as heart disease and cancer”.


There are ways to dramatically reduce the decline of our telomeres — not just through the obvious means of eating well and working up a sweat a few times a week. Mediation, too, has shown to be a beneficial combatant against ageing — Harvard University’s Dr Rudolph Tanzi has conducted one of many research projects on the topic. “Based on our results, the benefit from mediation isn’t strictly psychological; there is a clear and quantifiable change in how our bodies function,” he says. Meditation can be an efficient method of providing “relief for our immune systems, easing the day-to-day stresses of a body constantly trying to protect itself”. “The prediction is that this would then lead to healthier ageing.”


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces


Living Forever, Kind Of


  • North American tree the bristlecone pine may hold the key to everlasting life. Studies of samples nearly 5,000 years old showed that, although the outer layers had been worn, lashed by the weather and the odd lightning strike, at a cellular level, the trees had barely aged. Scientists are still not entirely sure how they do it.
  • Though most plants generally (far) outlive animals, one youthful creature can give them a good run — corals. These can survive for up to 4,000 years, though only when part of a colony.
  • A mollusc is the oldest known solitary animal, dragged up from beneath the waves in 2006. Unfortunately, the 507-year-old specimen soon died, but scientist put its longevity down to the snail-paced ageing of its cells — like those of the bristlecone pine.
  • Biochemist Cynthia Kenyon manipulated a worm’s genes and more than doubled its lifespan, with little proportionate ageing to its cells.
  • There are 150,000 deaths each day around the world, two-thirds of which are due to old age, but the number of centenarians around the world is predicated to increase tenfold by the year 2050.
  • By then, futurist, author and inventor Ray Kurzweil predicts ‘singularity’ will have happened — the ability of humans to become one with machines.

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