Andrew Steele tells people his thoughts on ageing – that we might one day cure it as if it were any other disease – they are often incredulous and sometimes hostile. Once, at a friend’s wedding, he left a group of guests mildly incensed for suggesting that near-future humans might live well into their 100s. A similar thing happens at dinner parties, where the responses are more polite but no less sceptical. He understands the reaction. We think of ageing as an inescapable fact of life – we’re born, we grow old, so it goes. “That’s been the narrative for thousands of years,” he says, on a video call. But what if it didn’t have to be?
Steele began professional life as a physicist. As a child, he was fascinated by space, the way many scientists are. But he has spent the past three years researching a book about biogerontology, the scientific study of ageing, in which he argues the case for a future in which our lives go on and on. Steele considers ageing “the greatest humanitarian issue of our time”. When he describes growing old as “the biggest cause of suffering in the world,” he is being earnest. “Ageing is this inevitable, creeping thing that happens,” he says. He is wearing a button-down shirt and, at 35, a look of still-youthful optimism. “We’re all quite blind to its magnitude. But what do people die of? Cancer. Heart disease. Stroke. These things all occur in old people, and they primarily occur because of the ageing process.”
In our 60s a kind of cliff edge appears, and often we have no choice but to stumble over it. Easy movements become hard. We begin to lose our hearing and our sight. Frustrating and embarrassing things start to happen. Why can’t I feel the tips of my toes? What on earth has happened to my hip? The body has worked tirelessly for years, and the cumulative internal effects of that action – the problematic buildup of aged, “senescent” cells; the dangerous mutations of other cells; the steady decline of the immune system; the general wearing-down of the body’s structures – suddenly predispose us to a variety of age-related diseases: cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, dementia. A 10-year-old’s risk of death is 0.00875%. At 65, the risk has risen to 1%. By the time we turn 92 we have a one in five chance of dying that year. For decades we are mostly fine, Steele says, and then, all of a sudden, we’re not.“The dream of anti-ageing medicine,” Steele writes in his book, Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old, “is treatments that would identify the root causes of dysfunction as we get older, then slow their progression or reverse them entirely.”