«If we are capable of living healthily, living more years does not mean more dependency»
María Blasco (Alicante, 1965) directs Spain’s National Centre for Oncological Research (CNIO). She holds a PhD in Biochemistry and is a specialist in ageing and telomeres (caps at the ends of chromosomes that contribute to the longevity of cells and the stability of genetic material). In 2016 she published, together with journalist Mónica G. Salomone, the popular science book Morir joven, a los 140 (Dying young, at 140). We had the opportunity to speak with her during a visit to Palau Macaya, where she participated in the cycle The Transhumanism under the lens, organized by the Club of Rome of Barcelona and Obra Social "la Caixa"
Is ageing one of society’s triumphs?
Yes, of course. At the start of the 20th century, life expectancy at birth stood at 30-something years for men and women in Spain, and now it stands at above 80 years. Being capable of living increasingly more years, in a good state of health, is a triumph for the research that has led to new treatments. This is thanks, basically, to a reduction in child mortality, closely related to infectious diseases.
Were we aware that life expectancy was going to grow so fast?
I don’t know if we were ever aware, but it is important to clarify that we continue to age biologically just as we did at the start of the century. This has not changed: a person today ages just the same as people aged back at the start of the 20th century. What we have been managed to do is reduce the mortality associated to diseases.
What differences exist between biological and demographic ageing?
Biological ageing refers to the damage that accumulates in our cells; this damage is behind the fact that eventually the tissues and organs do not function well and illness arises. Demographic ageing makes reference to the ageing of the population: we are increasingly living for a longer time while there are fewer births.
Living ever more years leads to changes in society. How will we organise life?
We are already seeing these changes. For example, delaying retirement age is under consideration, since a person aged 65 years is still someone capable of contributing to society.
Will elderly people be the new market?
In 2050, around 30% of the Spanish population will be aged over 65 years; in other words, one third of the country’s population. This opens up possibilities for new business and markets aimed at elderly people, who increasingly are going to be in a better state of health and will consume more products.
How will life prospects change for a person who knows that they are going to live for 140 years?
Life is already different now. Young people never consider that their life will end at 30, when they find a job and a partner. I think that people’s prospects and desires have changed and I am sure that they will change more.
As a researcher in biomedicine, what is your view of ageing?
In my view, ageing is the cause of the diseases that are killing us today. Just as viruses or bacteria are the cause of infectious diseases, so the molecular ageing process is the cause of many illnesses, such as heart attacks, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. I find it fascinating to try to discover what the molecular mechanisms are that make us age, because I think that is where the key lies for achieving effective treatments against these diseases, preventing them and delaying them as much as possible.
Does the real possibility exist of avoiding ageing-related diseases?
I believe so. To do this we have to understand in depth why they occur. Insofar as we are capable of delaying or preventing ageing, I think that the incidence of all these disorders would also be reduced. If we do not find ways of preventing them, treating them or curing them more efficiently than we do now, undoubtedly they would generate problems.
As director of the CNIO, what role does cancer play in ageing?
Cancer is also a disease associated with ageing, despite it affecting children and young people, although with less frequency. The risk of cancer increases between 40 and 50 years, when defects in our cells begin to accumulate. Since they can malfunction due to these faults, conditions can occur such as cancer or fibrosis, which are illnesses that are a consequence of ageing.
Is the fight against illness the way to demolishing the biological life expectancy barrier?
I see it differently. I think that understanding the ageing process will give us the keys to know how to prevent and treat diseases more efficiently. If you think about it, there is no single effective treatment for any of the degenerative diseases associated with ageing. There is no therapy for renal, hepatic or pulmonary fibrosis... Unless a transplant is performed there is nothing else that will revert or cure fibrosis. I think that the only way of achieving effective treatments will be to understand why these diseases occur. For me, the key has to lie in that biological ageing process.
The other face of survival is dependency. Will living so many years be sustainable?
If we do nothing to avoid or reduce illness, a time will come when we will be more dependent, it has always been that way. But it is also important to consider that the fact that we are now living longer on average is also associated with the fact that generally we live better, since disorders are better controlled. When, in animal models such as the mouse, we manage to lengthen lives, what we do is keep the animals younger for a longer time. You cannot lengthen an organism’s life if you do not lengthen its time in good health. Living more years should not mean more dependency, as long as we are capable of living healthily.
So, will we die healthy?
In nature, animals do not die of illnesses, they die healthy. They die of hunger, of cold, or whatever. Obviously, we have now overcome whatever our survival barrier was in nature. If we now controlled ageing, if we were capable of staying young for a longer time, perhaps the causes of death would be others, such as accidents.
In biological terms, does human life have a duration limit?
Yes, it has a limit that is determined based on the longest-living individual of the species that has existed. With respect to the human species, the person who has lived longest was a French woman aged 122 years, Jeanne Calment. Researchers including myself and others have already managed to exceed that biological limit in other species. For example, with mice we have managed to get them to live 40% longer. If we manipulated the mechanisms of ageing in humans we could exceed the biological limit of our species.
Would we be creating a new subspecies of humans, who would live longer thanks to biotechnology?
I don’t think so, because this is never going to be achieved by genetic manipulation. Ethically it is not possible and no scientist would think of it. But you might think of some type of drug that would extend youthfulness and also lengthen maximum life. That means you will live increasingly more years in good health.
Will spending on health increase?
Spending on health will increase if we do not find ways to prevent illness. There are many lifestyle habits that are increasing the risk of illness. I think that a lot of preventive work would need to be done on lifestyle habits, exercise and healthy eating in order for us to live more years in good health. In Spain, we have some dreadful lifestyle habits and we are doing nothing to be healthy for a longer time.
Why do some people age better than others?
There is a genetic component and a lifestyle habits component to ageing. Both bear influence on the fact that some people age faster than others. Even your socioeconomic level determines your life expectancy. There are studies that reveal different life expectancies among inhabitants of the same city, all depending on which neighbourhood people live in.
Interview by Núria Jar