Cryonics: Staying Alive a Little Longer

For centuries explorers from Ponce de Leon to the pirates of the Caribbean have set out in search of the fountain of youth and secrets to immortality.

Today, extending human life well beyond 100 years is closer than ever and there is a good chance you'll be able to experience it firsthand.

Aubrey de Grey is a respected, yet controversial, expert on the biology of aging who developed his theories at Cambridge University in England. He believes age-related diseases will soon be eliminated altogether, stopping aging in its tracks.

"What's likely to happen within the next 20 to 25, 30 years, we will develop technology that will buy a bit of time," he said. "We will develop rejuvenation technology that can be applied to people that are already middle-age and keep them middle-age, or less so to speak, for another 20 or 30 years. During that 20 or 30 years, the technology will be further advanced to give them another, let's say, 15 years, and so on. "


De Grey says that once scientists develop the solutions to defeating aging, the human life span could increase exponentially.

"I think people would live to about 1,000 years in that circumstance, on average. Some people would live less. Some people would live a lot more."

His ideas may be radical but even conventional scientists such as renowned gerontologist Robert N. Butler believe a baby born today could live to be 150 years old.

Butler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Why Survive? Being Old in America " and consults in Manhattan.

"It is certainly conceivable," Butler said. "We now are very poised to be able to manipulate and slow the aging process, so it could happen."

De Grey says the focus of his work is to find cures for the illnesses that on-set as you get older, such as Alzheimer's, type II diabetes or atherosclerosis.

"I'm not so much interested in giving people the chance to live a very long time because nobody really knows they want to live a very long time until we try it."

In case his research isn't far enough along before his time runs out, de Grey has signed up to be cryogenically preserved.

"The principle of cryonics is that people who are cryo-preserved are not necessarily dead," he said. "This is not bringing people back from the dead. This is a form of critical care. We know for example that there are many cases of children falling [in] ice or frozen lakes and having their hearts stopped for an hour ? and being revived and resuscitated and being absolutely fine with no side effects because they were cooled down nice and quickly."

More than 100 people have been cryo-preserved since the first case in 1967. The largest of several cryonics organizations is Alcor, located in Scottsdale, Ariz. The cost of treatment depends on whether you plan to preserve your whole body or just your brain. Whole body preservation runs $150,000 and neuropreservation costs about $80,000. Most patients pay through life insurance policies. Alcor's Tanya Jones says Alcor has 79 patients preserved, ranging in age from 20 to 99, as well as 37 family pets. It's also the resting place of Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams.

"The main thing that these people all have in common, despite the wide range of ages and backgrounds, is that these people love life," she said. "They want more."

Tripper McCarthy is one of them. He says it's never too early to plan ahead for what happens after your heart stops.

"You don't know how long you have," he said. "So I thought it was really important to look into these matters and to look into cryonics while we still had the chance 'cause you really don't know how much you're gonna get out of life, how much life you're gonna have. So yeah, we're in our early thirties but who's to say, you know, how long we'll live?"

His wife, Venus, says she thought her husband was "nuts" until she learned more about the process.

"When he explained to me the science behind it, and the people involved in the procedures, I really became a believer," she said. "And that's when I said that you know, I want to do it with you."

Dean Malkemus and his wife, Shannon, have made cryo-preservation a family matter. They're preserving themselves, as well as their three children.

"After becoming a mother, it really made me feel like it was a good thing to do," she said.

The oldest of their children, 9-year-old Avianna, has only an idea of what cryonics is, but is already sure she wants to be preserved.

"Yeah, 'cause it's better to have a chance than no chance coming back."

And it seems that's the viewpoint of most cryonics advocates, including McCarthy.

"The way I look at it is that cryonics is like the ultimate lottery ticket," he says. "If it does work, what you get … ... this extra life in the future, is just incredible. It'll mean more than any jackpot you could win today."

Purchase a copy of the Barbara Walters special, 'Live to Be 150' on DVD.