Scientists Study the Moments Before Dying

Humans are different from Med flies, of course, but Carey thinks he and his colleagues have found a new tool for the study of aging in biological systems. It's difficult to study aging in humans because we live a long time, so it's a much slower process than aging among insects.

But extending human longevity, and preserving the quality of life for as long as possible, is an obsession not only among scientists, but throughout an aging population. Most of us want to live a long time, and we want to remain healthy and vital until the end.

Many experts believe that the human life span has its natural limits, and while we might gain a few years, none of us will live for centuries.

So that has placed a greater emphasis on keeping the elderly healthy for as long as possible so that they might enjoy more of their years, even if they can't add to them. It's called the "compression of morbidity," a charming phase that means pushing those dreadful diseases as close to the exit as possible.

"They are trying to turn us into salmon," Carey quips. "One day you're healthy, and the next day you're dead."

No Turning Back?

If he sounds a bit skeptical, it's because he is. Even his fruit flies, he says, point in the opposite direction.

"There is a natural process of deterioration that all organisms go through, and you can probably fiddle with it some, but none the less you can't eliminate it," he says. "It's called geriatric failure."

So maybe like the 30-day-old fruit fly that flops over on its back for the first time, humans "take a turn south and there's no turning back," Carey speculates.

Yet science has made substantial progress in treating a wide range of ailments that inflict the elderly, thus improving the quality of life well past prime. Most of us don't have to look far to see examples of that.

But maybe Carey's fruit flies can teach us something about our biological clocks that will, at some point, tell us it's time for that last journey. Maybe somebody can figure out how to reset those clocks, if only to gain a little more time.

But maybe we're more like fruit flies than we think.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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