Of course, the dream of beating back time is an old one. Shakespeare had King Lear lament the tortures of aging, while the myth of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth in Florida and the eternal life of the Struldbrugs in “Gulliver’s Travels” both fed the notion of overcoming aging.
For some scientists, recent anti-aging research — on gene therapy, body-part replacement by regeneration and nanotechnology for repairing aging cells — has breathed new life into this dream. Optimists about average life expectancy’s surpassing 100 years in the coming century, like James W. Vaupel, the founder and director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, cite promising animal studies in which the lives of mice have been extended through genetic manipulation and low-calorie diets. They also point to the many life-extending medical advances of the past century as precedents, with no end in sight, and note that average life expectancy in the United States has long been rising, from 47.3 in 1900 to 78.7 in 2010.