Modern Medicine

Could humans attain immortality?
Answered by Jennifer Horton and Science Channel
  •  Jennifer Horton

    Jennifer Horton

  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. Mankind's quest for immortality has taken an interesting path. In the 1500s, Juan Ponce de Leon sought the legendary "Fountain of Youth." Today, optimistic individuals sign up to be cryogenically frozen in the hopes of being restored to life and good health in the future. Others promote everything from extreme calorie deprivation to popping pills of Resveratrol to combat the aging process. The pursuit of immortality has even led to the formation in 2002 of The Immortality Institute (ImmInst.org), an international, non-profit, member-based organization dedicated to "conquering the blight of involuntary death."

    The simple fact that the aging process is still largely a mystery -- there are countless theories surrounding how it works -- is just one reason immortality will likely never be realized. This is because aging affects practically every cell, organ and system in the body: The heart becomes less efficient, blood vessels lose elasticity, bones and muscles weaken, digestion slows down, brain cells decrease -- the list goes on and on. Finding an everlasting antidote or replacement for each of these deteriorating functions is highly unlikely. Even if, as futurologist Ian Pearson has proposed, we succeed at downloading our minds into machines so that the failing of the body becomes irrelevant, what's to say that machine will be in it for the long haul?

    It's certainly conceivable that experts may one day be able to extend the human lifespan to an extent unimaginable today. After all, scientists have already designed artificial hearts and highly functional artificial limbs, and they are close to releasing an artificial retina that can restore sight to the blind [source: CBS News]. But the possibility of extending life indefinitely, forever and ever amen, is a long shot. The human body simply is not meant to last forever -- just look at what happened to Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep in "Death Becomes Her."

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  2. It's highly unlikely that a human could live forever. Even though the average human life expectancy has increased dramatically since the beginning of the 20th century, it won't continue to double and triple until we're living for hundreds of years. Some scientists believe that there is a hard-coded maximum life expectancy for humans, and it's probably somewhere around 125 years old. One theory, known as the Hayflick Limit Theory, suggests that the cells in the human body may only divide and copy themselves a fixed number of times, and this limit puts a restriction on how long a person can survive. Once cells cease reproducing, organs and tissues become ineffective and shut down.

    On the other hand, biological immortality is not necessarily impossible. One species of jellyfish, for example, known as the Turritopsis nutricula, seems to have the ability live forever by reversing its own aging process after sexual maturity [source: The Telegraph]. This type of discovery may provide comfort to futurists who hold out hope that human immortality is right around the corner. Scientists are hard at work developing pills and treatments that might add a few years to our life, but their search is hindered by how long human beings already live. It's difficult, after all, to construct a scientific experiment or clinical trial that may last for more than a hundred years.

    There is also the possibility that human consciousness can achieve immortality in a non-physical form. Most religions include some form of the belief that humans were created as immortals in the first place. The Bible's tale of the fall of Adam and Eve is a classic example. After they ate the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden, God punished them by making them mortal and able to experience physical death. However, most Christians believe that a conscious and immortal soul survives the death of the body.

    In some religions, humans were created as mortals and then tried to achieve immortality. In Mesopotamian literature, Gilgamesh, the son of a human king and a goddess, was haunted by the thought of his own mortality after his best friend Enkidu died. A human named Utnapishtim, who had been made immortal by the gods, promised Gilgamesh immortality if he could stay awake for an entire week. Gilgamesh fell asleep, and Utnapishtim gave him a rejuvenating plant, but the plant was ultimately was eaten by a snake, ending Gilgamesh's chance of immortality.

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