Is there really a mathematical reason why you can’t live forever?

31 Oct 2017

Image: Natthaphong Kaewrakmook/Shutterstock

Despite efforts to push the boundaries of science to help us find out how to live forever, a new study says it is mathematically impossible.

Some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names are keen to pump millions of dollars into research that they hope will help us all to live forever, even though many of the most basic of diseases remain untreated.

But now, dashing the hopes of Sergey Brin et al is a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a team from the University of Arizona, which claims that the entire idea is mathematically impossible.

Based on our current understanding of the evolution of ageing, there is the suggestion that it could be stopped if only science could figure out a way to make selection between organisms perfect.

The idea is that by encouraging competition between cells, we would eliminate the ‘sluggish’ ones associated with ageing and keep the healthy ones on top.

However, according to this new study, this does not take into account the fact that not only do cells slow down, but some cells ratchet up their growth rate, leading to the development of cancer cells.

This occurs in all of us, the researchers said, even though it doesn’t present itself with symptoms, and these cancerous cells ‘cheat’ when placed in competition with healthy cells.

Dying is ‘just something you have to deal with’

“What we show is that this forms a double bind: a ‘catch 22’,” said Paul Nelson, lead author of the study.

“If you get rid of those poorly functioning, sluggish cells, then that allows cancer cells to proliferate; and if you get rid of, or slow down, those cancer cells, then that allows sluggish cells to accumulate.

“So, you’re stuck between allowing these sluggish cells to accumulate or allowing cancer cells to proliferate, and if you do one, you can’t do the other. You can’t do them both at the same time.”

This led Nelson and his fellow researchers to turn to maths, to claim that dying is “just something you have to deal with” as a multicellular organism.

Joanna Masel, Nelson’s partner in the study, added: “Things will get worse over time, in one of these two ways or both.

“Either all of your cells will continue to get more sluggish, or you’ll get cancer. And the basic reason is that things break. It doesn’t matter how much you try and stop them from breaking – you can’t.”

This isn’t the first study to come to the conclusion that our efforts to make us immortal are futile. Last August, a team of Dutch scientists claimed that the maximum age a woman can reach was 115.7 years, while men were given 114.1 years.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic