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This hour of Radiolab: is death a disease that can be cured?

We filter the modern search for the fountain of youth through personal stories of witnessing death -- the death of a cell, the death of a loved one...and the aging of a society.


Reporter Jocelyn Ford, Leonard Hayflick, Dr. Cynthia Kenyon and Lu Olkowski

Life's Limit

Until Leonard Hayflick came along, everyone thought cells were immortal. That they’d divide over and over again, forever. Hayflick torpedoes that theory and proved that there is limit. A very predictable limit: a magic number. To thank him, science textbooks everywhere now refer to that as ‘the Hayflick limit.’

Comments [29]

Fountains of Youth

Dr. Cynthia Kenyon looks at the genes of tiny worms, and discovers that aging may be a battle between good and evil. A literal struggle between two genes (who she calls): The Grim Reaper gene vs. The Fountain of Youth gene. And by fixing the match, she and her team ...

Comments [20]


How do we deal with dying? Most of us look away. But in the case of the Zagar family, they look closer. A father and son have a contest to take the best pictures of their dying grandpa, and the result is an up-close portrait of death. This piece was ...

Comments [24]

Comments [40]

Erin from Philadelphia

To manufacture machines to take sole responsibility for the care of the elderly is to deny youth the joy of service. It isn't a burden. It's a privilege.

Apr. 24 2017 12:09 PM
uneducated college student

I do not believe that living a low stress life is the way to eternal life. I believe there are many different reasons as to why people live longer, including luck. I’m sure having a strong heart is one part of it but what about muscles that don’t deteriorate at the same rate? And having strong senses and fine motor skills? I’m sure that if you went up to an old person who was living past their life expectancy you would see some of these qualities. I’m not saying having low stress wouldn’t prolong your life I’m rather asking if there might be more to it than just a slow heart rate or a low stress life style.

Sep. 07 2016 11:52 AM
Patrizia from Washington,DC

I was absolutely appalled by the Death Watch segment, and I can't see how this family's self serving 'objective' examination of death served any purpose other than to illustrate how NOT to treat an (alleged) beloved father and grandfather. In fact, it was a circus of horrors, an experiment, tricked out as an in-depth examination claiming to probe the nature of death and dying up close. Yes, the visceral experience of changing the dying man's sheets would affirm the reality of a body shutting down, especially instructive, I suppose, when the participants put down their beer cans to tend to the old man. But the worst was the dying man's grandson--the 'filmmaker' himself--clinically describing in detail his grandfather's many bed sores,e.g. (I paraphrase) "The white parts were the muscle." (There was no mention,whatsoever,of any measures taken to either prevent this suffering or ameliorate it.) Why, I want to know, would anyone allow a fellow human being to suffer this way? If this scene were in a nursing home, the owners would be criminally liable for neglect. But this fiasco took place under the very roof of the people who claimed to care about the dying man. Are there any listeners out there who'd elect this kind of end of life treatment? Any hands up in the air?

Apr. 03 2016 08:03 PM

Oh, my, the life span of squirrels. That kind of depends on the traffic level on any streets they might cross. Keep in mind that there is a difference between life span and life expectancy. I looked up Eastern grey squirrel (since that is the one I have to deal with most). IN CAPTIVITY, the longest known life span was 23.6 years, indicating a potential of expectancy of close to 25 years. From other observations of populations in the field, life *spans* varied from abut 2-6 years years to 3-8 years. I observed one individual who lived at least 10 years (evidently perished in the winter with record lows and no snow a couple years ago).

Apr. 03 2016 01:04 PM
Phyllis Simone from Englewood, Florida

I enjoyed listening to most of this broadcast but when it came to the last segment I didn't see how describing bedsores and pain the grandfather endured while dying would enlighten any listener. As a visiting nurse my reaction was why is this person suffering so? Where was the medical/nursing support that would have helped alleviate his suffering and helped him to be present in both mind and body? Yes the father, grandson and his friends were @ his side but was he even aware of them because he was suffering so. Many patients die at home comfortably, surrounded by their family without enduring pain and suffering. And as stated we should not be alone when we die.
Broadcasting this last segment only reinforced fear of dying and death. What was described was neglect and abuse which no one should have to endure.

Jun. 30 2014 10:21 PM
Noel Fair from hillsdale, ny

I really enjoyed todays program on aging. It was fun and informative. I was listening in the car and immediately put it on when I got in the house. thanks

Jun. 30 2014 02:39 PM
kate from santa barbara

I was infuriated by the death watch feature. There is NO EXCUSE for an unrelieved bed sore. They are difficult but possible to avoid. And you have to do more than just move the patient in his bed once they develop. Such sores are very painful--a point that was made in the story but without reference to treatment and pain management or special cushions and mattresses. Pain management is possible (and not that difficult). I'm glad that Grandfather was surrounded by lively young people and loving family but his last month could have been much better--and maybe longer--than it apparently was. Please don't be discouraged if you are caring for a person with pressure sores--learn what's necessary to handle them.

Jun. 29 2014 05:57 PM
Henry from patchogue new york

Am a 20 year old college student just listing to radio lab. Very informative and educational, really opened my mind to new ideas about science and most of all life. Great programing and interesting subjects. Amazing!

Jun. 28 2014 11:44 PM
Lynne Cawley from Sebastopol, CA

I regularly listen to your show but I was particularly touched by the episode on immortality. I am a retired R.N. and the last 5 years I spent in Nursing were with Hospice. Thank you for speaking openly and honestly about the end of life. You do a great service to us all when we can hear such loving stories told without shrinking from the dreaded "D" word (death).

Jun. 28 2014 05:05 PM
'Great White'- Shark: Earth & Beings Rights Person

I do not know why the following was not brought up and discussed a lot, during this episode, and it is a reason there should be at least a Mortality Part II episode, I would prefer an at least 4-epsiode series called Mortality.
Around the same time this episode was originally broadcasted, I watched a science channel and a science program that had an episode (I cannot remember their names, been so many years ago) about why certain Beings live for so long and longest, while certain Beings live for so short and shortest live span. And that episode’s scientist scientific study concluded that it was how many heart beats over a life span and thus how fast they beat their hearts, I think the longest living Being was The Blue Whale (or is it The Lobster- after re-listening to this episode) and it barely beats its heart. Comparing The Blue Whale to the human is so lopsided, thus, we live way shorter than The Blue Whales. They did not go into depth about what this episode does, but they did point out that these Blue Whales weighed a heck of a lot more than humans and other beings that lived a lot less. That for the huge and longer living beings in water, then the water created obonency (sp?) lessening the weights effect on The Blue Whales’ living (body), but also the heavier, but longer living water beings or just for non-water living beings being able to live with barely beating their hearts, means lesser strain on their bodies processes and parts to survive with the weight. If you combine them (what I did and do is think of what I am posting here and listen to this episode), then this comes to you (or at least came to me)- If The Being does not stress its living (body) as much as possible then it will it will live longer as much as possible. Because stressing the beings’ living (body) causes the cells to count faster, die faster and moving the dying of the cells chain faster. Now, obviously I am not talking doing nothing, which would stress the beings’ living (body), by mentally not challenging the beings’ living (body) enough.

Jun. 28 2014 01:00 PM
brooklyn bum from bklyn ny

hay jad great show that lobster would taste like leather
but what i really dug was that tune u played after the lobster story
is it on itunes ?
what's the name of that please drop me a line

Jun. 26 2014 10:18 PM

Man, lobsters are even creepier than I thought.

Oct. 25 2013 10:45 PM

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Mar. 07 2013 01:31 AM
John from Croydon, PA

Yes, The Ballad of Narayama was fiction, and I thought the radio program got the end of the story wrong. I think that most of us want to do the best for our aging parents with the limited resources available, and parents do not want to feel that they are a burden. The author created a plausible situation to illustrate those universal concerns. While the story was fiction, I thought of the man carrying his mother on his back, up the side of the mountain, when I was taking care of my own mother at the end of her life.

Jan. 30 2013 05:46 PM
a Japanese in U.S.A.

"The Ballad of Narayama" is based on a fiction of the same title by Shichirou Fukazawa. It's not based on historical fact but JUST a fiction!!

Jan. 17 2013 01:03 PM
John J LeTourneau from Croydon, Pa

I saw the Japanese movie, Narayama, a couple decades ago. It was very memorable, and I still think about it. At the end, the villagers were happy when they saw it snowing up on the mountain where the old woman was left. I took that to mean that they were pleased that she would die of hypothermia rather suffer a slower death from starvation. I believe the radio show stated that they were happy that she died of starvation, a less humane interpretation.

Jan. 16 2013 11:18 PM
Gerard from North Carolina

Japan isn't xenophobic? That's news to me.

Jan. 15 2013 10:33 PM
Jason from Anchorage

I just read a great novella called Peace Out which ties into many of the stories on this episode. As our Boomers retire and our nations birthdate continues to decline, these issues are going to push their way to the front of our national debates.

Jan. 15 2013 12:43 AM

I have a question what is “obasute” of Japan?
I had been living in Japan for about 40 years but I never heard “obasute”. I know what's “ubasute”, though.
Is that true Japan had a social customs to throw away old people?
"Ubasute yama" story is well known very old folklore.
Original "Ubasute yama" story came from India. AD200 people already had this folklore in India. Like a Buddhism, this folklore went to China, then came to Japan.
That is why so many places have similar folklore as "Ubasute yama" story.
I never knew that was actual customs of Japan.I heard no one know that was actual costoms or just folklore. All I know is that the story is not originally from Japan.
You are notional radio show. So you must have research about this story a lot, right?
Could you show me just one evidence to proof that Japanese people used to throw away old people?
I want to learn about my country.

Jan. 14 2013 12:11 AM
Kim from PA

Turning on the radio I caught the last comment of "*amn, you *itch-slapped me..." I'd like to think that this program is something I can listen to with my son. However, hearing this comment really threw me and I decided that perhaps this was not something that the two of us should listen to. I am disappointed that this is what I heard; perhaps the rest of the program was better than this comment, but I certainly did not want to have find out.

Jan. 13 2013 04:18 PM
Mark from St. Petersburg

I take issue with your profiling Florida as a state filled with old people. Some parts of the state are clearly retirement areas, but most of the state is a mix of people of all ages that doesn't differ in ratio to most of the rest of the country. Even St. Petersburg has lots of non-old people.

This was a very interesting RadioLab topic, as most of your topics are. I have yet to hear a RadioLab didn't like.

Jan. 13 2013 11:43 AM
Jc from Torchwood

Great topic. What is more critical and relevant to all of us than our all too quick senescence. Where barely gotten going then aging sets in. We can learn and develop so much just when we at our prime-aging starts. Reminds me of Flowers for Algernon story. Tragic- not death so much as the short time of vitality..-- It'd be a great story to imagine if we can increase our intellect simply by virtue of more prime time.. All would change for the better even if the death rate no better!

Jan. 12 2013 10:38 PM
Jessie Henshaw from Way Uptown

Jad & Robert, You fellas get very wrapped up in the dark arts of overcoming the laws of nature, I think with the usual effect. I mean, our minds think of it so easily, there MUST be a way to twist our ideas of the physical world to get it to do so too, no? I don't think you've asked yourself what kinds of cells multiply forever?

The only natural examples we know of seem to be cells that are programmed to only multiply by themselves, and have no way to be part of a body, "just not getting it" when it comes to making connections with others. Do you think maybe the biology Doc's and their "mad science" might possibly have unsuspectingly invented cancer?

Jan. 12 2013 08:51 PM
Maria from Raleigh, NC 27613

I loved this program........ It was sooooo interesting and educative. There should be more programs like this one, to educate people so we would not be so afraid to die; death is part of life, but nobody wants to talk about death and if you bring up the subject, people don't want to talk to you any more...... they think you are morbid or pesimistic, or something like that. People want to live forever and ever and religion helps you to believe that way. I think that when people become more educated, they are not afraid any more.
With the technology that we have now, we should be able to die a peaceful and painless death, instead of having to go through all that suffering.

Jan. 12 2013 07:14 PM
Joan Shapiro from Ridgway Colorado

Great show today Jan. 12. My comment concerns the piece on photographing or otherwise creating intimacy with the death experience. I had a similar idea that I presented to Washington University in St. Louis (my social work alma mater) that related to portraiture as a way of creating intimacy out of the awkward silence of the deathwatch. It requires nothing from the dying individual in too much pain too be sociable, and yet is incredibly intimate. I did this with a client dying of bone cancer. I'd love to get in touch with the father and son who did the photography project to discuss this further. I believe it has more applications that just close relatives -- sort of a social work cum art school project exploring what the dying can teach the living and defending the dying from social isolation.

Thank you,

Joan Shapiro

Jan. 12 2013 07:09 PM
Mari Reynolds from Huntington Beach, CA

About Paro the Seal Therapeutic Robot - which came first, the Simpson's episode with Bart & Martin's Sealbot for Seniors or Paro the real Sealbot? (Simpson's episode: Replaceable You)

Jan. 12 2013 06:56 PM
wendy jordan from nc

Agree with Geekoid. The transition from hearing about the worms longer life span and health to the Japan issue of lots of aged was askew and puts bias and cloud on the program. The whole point is the fountain of youth, the elongation of youth and health not more time being old or even extending . Its a proportion of long healthy youth.
Everytime there is talk on aging senescence, youth and length of time are never discriminated. Helllooooooo, There is a huge difference with living in the body you had at age 28 for 400 years than just stretching out a life. (the transition nearly implied even more years of decrepitud) This missed the whole point!

Jan. 12 2013 05:04 PM
Katie Galbraith

I really enjoyed this show, even though I was sobbing at the end. I've been dealing with the aging and dying of parents and in-laws for the last five or six years. I was with my dad when he died from cancer five years ago. I knew he was dying when he suddenly took three dramatic last breaths. I hugged him, and told him several times, "I love you dad." It was the saddest moment of my life, but I'm so glad I was there, along with my mom and five siblings, who let me be the one to hold onto him, for some reason.
I feel like we owe it to our parents and other loved ones to go with them all the way to the end, no matter how difficult it might be.
A few days before his death, there were fifteen people all seated around my dad's deathbed, all there for him.

Jan. 12 2013 05:04 PM
wendy from nc

Agree with Geekoid. The transition from hearing about the worms longer life span and health to the Japan issue of lots of aged was askew and puts bias and cloud on the program. The whole point is the fountain of youth, the elongation of youth and health not more time being old or even extending . Its a proportion of long healthy youth.
Everytime there is talk on aging senescence, youth and length of time are never discriminated. Helllooooooo, There is a huge difference with living in the body you had at age 28 for 400 years than just stretching out a life. (the transition nearly implied even more years of decrepitud) This missed the whole point!

Jan. 12 2013 05:02 PM
Diane from Goshen, Connecticut

I was a little confused listening to this broadcast. Having read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I was informed to the fact that her cells were used in the first polio vaccine. However, I did find that Hayflicks were used in the development of the first oral vaccine.

Jan. 12 2013 03:44 PM
Heidi Upton from Forest Hills

Listening to this episode, especially the last segment, I am moved to share something I wrote many years ago when my husband was dying from liver cancer. This "topic" is both excruciating and necessary, yes? One time, I was given good advice: "Don't duck, that's the main thing."

In terms of what should be,
things are not right
the body is off, it pales,
it withers in minute ways
as moments pass -
yet this soft drying frame,
this man who dies
is a gentle thing
as he is gathered in.
It is a horrific, loving, relentless flowing
that happens now
and who knows the why of it?
It is, and we go with it -
we are taken, as children,
on the purposeless purposeful path,
and we stop to talk to trees
along the way.

Jan. 12 2013 01:03 PM
Fitzcarl Reid from New York City

About The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.

Soon to be made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, this New York Times bestseller takes readers on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers filled with HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of.

Jan. 11 2013 06:26 PM
JC from MN

This is the first Radiolab episode I heard, and it's still one of my favorites. Thanks for the show.

Jan. 10 2013 09:43 AM

A claim in this program is wrong. To paraphrase "If you unfroze the cells after one thousand million years, they would start-up and divide."
This is just not true. The DNA is not stable. Even at ultralow temperatures some denaturation will occur and after a time the cell will not be viable.

Nov. 12 2012 06:35 PM
Priya from Portland

Wow, I'm in love with daf-16... It was a really interesting show, and it was great even before hearing about the Fountain of Youth gene. But seriously, daf-16 made my day :)

Feb. 26 2012 11:20 PM
Ric from Boston

Lordy, can I just say how much I LOVE DAF-16? Such a great casting decision! :)

Sep. 05 2011 05:00 PM

Great episode, but horrifying, annoying and LOUD screams, squeals! Don't listen at work unless you want your co-workers to come running in.

Jun. 21 2011 01:46 PM

Squirrels only live up to about 6 years? I could not find a 25 year old squirrel.

Nov. 13 2010 09:04 PM
Geekoid from Tualatin, Oregon

I know this is an old episode, but something in the 'mortality' episode bothered me so much, I just have to post. When discussing the again 'problem' in Japan, you seemed to imply they living longer would mean more elderly to take care of completely overlooking Dr. Cynthia Kenyon saying that her genetic work not only allowed for worms to live longer, but we'are also very healthy and active. IF a drug that lets us live 6 times longer also makes be as health as a 20 year old, then we won't need to be taken care of. To me, the interesting story would have been about those social changes.

Oct. 22 2010 10:53 AM
Alex Fochtmann from Middlesex County, VA

About 6 months ago I was introduced to Radiolab at a place I consider my true home called Nature Camp. Occasionally the councilors let us listen to music or would read us some dirty story before we went to sleep. One night they played the very first episode of Radiolab that I ever heard. I was completely fascinated by this episode that I later learned was called Sleep. Months after I got home my girlfriend began to have terrifying nightmares that all had something in common, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. So I remembered the segment of the episode that focused on dreams. I looked it up and listened to it once more. I took notes during the segment and at one point I figured it out. I called my girlfriend to ask her a few questions that pertained to her dreams. Long story short, thanks to Radiolab I was able to "diagnose" her dreams and why she'd been having them. Ever since then I've been listening to Radiolab on a regular basis. For years I had been thinking about random subjects and having a mental debate almost like what this show does. I am thrilled to find out that I am not the only one who thinks in the way that I do.

Sep. 17 2010 05:42 PM

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