Science & Technology

Nobel Prize winner Venki Ramakrishnan discusses ageing and death in new book

A restricted diet and proper sleep may play a key role in a long and healthy life

By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 02 April 2024
Photo for representation: iStock

Humanity has been haunted for millennia by a question: Why do we age and die? A new book by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Venki Ramakrishnan is attempting to answer it. Among other things, a restricted diet and proper sleep may play a key role in a long and healthy life, suggests Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality.

What is ageing? According to Ramakrishnan, ageing is characterised by the gradual accumulation of chemical damage to our molecules and cells over time. It initiates with minor defects, progressing to larger ones that give rise to the various health issues associated with old age, ultimately culminating in systemic failure leading to death.

There has been a surge in scientific research on the topic, with over 300,000 articles published in the last decade, reflects a global effort to understand and potentially cheat death. This scientific push is mirrored by financial investment, with anti-ageing startups attracting tens of billions of dollars. 

Even tech titans are taking notice. Billionaires like Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg have all shown interest in extending lifespans, fueling the fire of anti-ageing research. This confluence of scientific progress, financial backing and celebrity interest suggests a potential turning point in our battle against ageing.

The demographic composition of the population has undergone significant transformation over time. Between 1913 and 2022, worldwide life expectancy witnessed a remarkable increase, rising from 34 years to 72 years, with projections suggesting a continuation of this upward trend. Concurrently, from 1970 to 2020, fertility rates experienced a decline across every nation, reflecting a global demographic shift towards reduced birth rates.

According to the World Health Organization, by the year 2030, one out of every six individuals globally will be aged 60 or older, representing an increase from 1 billion in 2020 to 1.4 billion. Looking further ahead to 2050, the population of individuals aged 60 and above will double to reach 2.1 billion. 

Moreover, projections indicate that the number of individuals aged 80 or above will triple by 2050, surging to 426 million from the 2020 count. This demographic shift underscores the significant ageing of populations worldwide and the corresponding challenges and opportunities it presents.

The book delves into the issue that our lifespan is nearly double today that of individuals living a century ago. Jeanne Calment, who passed away in 1997 at the age of 122, holds the record as the oldest human with documented and reliable records. It also brings up the profound societal repercussions of significantly extending lifespan would be immense, representing a ticking time bomb. The challenges of an ageing society are already evident and growing.

Ramakrishnan also discusses peak productivity: While many older individuals may believe they are still making significant contributions, evidence suggests that the majority of people do their most impactful work before reaching the age of 45.

The scientist also brings up studies across various species that have demonstrated that a restricted diet can lead to an extension of healthy lifespan. Similarly, sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of numerous age-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and Alzheimer’s. 

Ramakrishnan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 for his research on the structure and function of cells’ ribosomes. In 2000, he and other researchers collaborated to map the structure of ribosomes, which contain hundreds of thousands of atoms. This has proven useful in the production of antibiotics, among other applications. He has previously authored scientific memoir Gene Machine. 

Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality is published by Hachette India / Hodder & Stoughton. 

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