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Fountains of Youth

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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 at UCSF have found they can take the worms, and more than DOUBLE their lifespan. She wonders if her research may be applicable to humans. And what would a society look like if we could all live twice as long? Well, Japan may be the canary in the coal mine, because it has the fastest aging population in the whole world. Reporter Jocelyn Ford takes us there, on a tour through street fairs, nursing homes, and robot factories, to see how a society supports an aging population.

Two “Paro” robotic seals are used for brief bouts of companionship at the Kaigorojin Hokenshisetsu Toyoura nursing home in Tsukuba City, Japan (near Tokyo).

Photo by Jocelyn Ford

“Granny” Sumi Kasuya and Paro get close

Photo by Jocelyn Ford

“Paro” the robotic seal, invented by Dr.Takanori Shibata, is certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the World's Most Therapeutic Robot.

Photo by Jocelyn Ford

(c) Joe Andoe, 2004
For better or for worse, Paro brings a smile to Mrs. Kasuya's face

Photo By Jocelyn Ford


Reporter Jocelyn Ford and Dr. Cynthia Kenyon

Comments [20]

Isabella from United States

I feel like there is a reason why people die so that we don't get to over populated and if we all live forever then the world will become so over populated that about 78% of the world population is homeless

Jun. 04 2016 09:43 PM
tate riser

Just wondering if you had a website address for your life extending youth pill just wanted to read more about it I heard it on the WNYC show today

Apr. 03 2016 02:44 AM
Charles Bolton from Portland, OR

I appreciate the work that RadioLab does and enjoy listening, however-

I wish I could listen to RadioLab without all the sound effects. Every episode has myriad little annoying intrusions, from high-pitched voices to movie samples and children screaming (this episode). It makes listening to the podcast difficult. It also has a tendency to distract from what is actually being discussed on the podcast. I just want to hear the conversation.

Anyway thanks for putting the show on.

Jul. 14 2014 02:45 PM
Joseph from Cincinnati, Ohio

It could be that not being sexually amped puts the body in conservation mode while waiting for the animal's circumstances to improve. My speculation then is that low libido correlates with longer lifespan.

Also, as was mentioned a few times, living longer doesn't need to mean more frailty. In fact, if we initiate a successful program for public longevity, the boost in youthful years in people's lives could produce a social and economic dividend. The stress and burden of aged frailty and low functionality could be postponed, possibly indefinitely if anti- and reverse- aging therapies happened to be remarkably effective.

Jun. 29 2014 09:34 PM

Just heard this today. Didn't realize it first aired in 2007.

Box 2. Practise What You Preach

Cynthia Kenyon's eating habits are defined by her ageing research on worms. “There's a lot of these diets … and what they all have in common is low carb—actually, low glycaemic index carbs,” she says. “That's not eating the kind of carbohydrates where the sugar gets into your bloodstream very quickly [and stimulates production of insulin].”

No desserts. No sweets. No potatoes. No rice. No bread. No pasta. “When I say ‘no,’ I mean ‘no, or not much,’” she notes. “Instead, eat green vegetables. Eat the fruits that aren't the sweet fruits, like melon.” Bananas? “Bananas are a little sweet.” Meat? “Meat, yes, of course. Avocados. All vegetables. Nuts. Fish. Chicken. That's what I eat. Cheese. Eggs. And one glass of red wine a day.”

Kenyon, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco, has been on her diet for two-and-a-half years. “I did it because we fed our worms glucose and it shortened their lifespan.”

But the diet is unproven, she cautions, and she's not recommending it for all. Nevertheless, she's pleased with its performance for her. “I have a fabulous blood profile. My triglyceride level is only 30, and anything below 200 is good.”

Kenyon is angered by the general lack of nutritional knowledge: “It's a little bit embarrassing to say that scientists actually don't know what you should eat…. We can target particular oncogenes, but we don't know what you should eat. Crazy,” she says.

Does her dieting represent a return to scientists experimenting on themselves? “I don't think so—you have to eat something, and you just have to make your best judgement. And that's my best judgement. Plus, I feel better. Plus, I'm thin—I weigh what I weighed when I was in college. I feel great —you feel like you're a kid again. It's amazing.”

Jun. 29 2014 09:16 PM
Mairi Macdonald from San Francisco

I was enjoying this broadcast in the car with my children. I was shocked by the language used at the end of this report. "Bitch slapped" is not acceptable. I don't want my 4 and 6 year olds using such language, and don't think it should be on the air (KQED) at 1pm when children are listening. I would like you to respond to this complaint. It is not necessary to use this kind of language.

Jun. 28 2014 11:41 PM
Mari from Huntington Beach, CA

Sorry, I think I commented previously on the wrong article, but this is for Jocelyn Ford: Do you know which came first, Paro the Robot or the Simpson episode "Replaceable You" where Bart and Martin invent a robot baby seal to keep seniors happy in a home (but the wires get crossed and the seals attack)?

Jan. 12 2013 07:03 PM
Merry from Boston

Agree with some of the comments: we wont be living longer and detiorating over a longer period of time, but living vitally and energetically for all our lives. I beleive we will have anti-aging and revitalizing supplements in the not to distant future. As for dying, If buddhist monks can "dematerialize" when they wish to go on, we will also find ways - maybe similar ways - without going thru todays death process when we wish to try something else.

And hey! Jad and Robert! Lets stop moaning and groaning about the elderly in our countries.. Some of us are them. Coming from a long-lived family where everyone stayed mentally vital and mobile til the end I can tell you some of that vitality already exists in our population. Why not look at that?

Excellent program tho - but I didnt choose to listen to the old-age breakdown at the end. I worked on my spring garden plan instead.

Jan. 12 2013 04:27 PM

I think that the folks who are focusing on the lifespan of squirrels are missing the was just an example. Jad, I love the way you used a baby (girl) voice for DAX16. That is part of the magic of this show.

Feb. 13 2012 01:21 PM

According to a publication in the Journal of Mammalogy by the authors Barkalow and Soots (1975), the gray squirrel Sciurus carolinensis lives around 10 years. The actual numbers are 12 years for the female and 9 years for the male. These data was collected from wild squirrels, in their natural environment.
Maybe Cynthia Kenyon was referring to 30 years if squirrels would be kept in captivity, but I could not find any source mentioning this.
Fox squirrels, however, live for 13 years in captivity (Journal of Mammalogy, 1988).
So, I think 30 years seem a bit far fetched or she is talking about a squirrel that is different from the species mentioned in these studies.

Apr. 12 2011 11:44 AM

Hi Andrew.

Thers something about Ubasute here

and there

Feb. 12 2011 08:09 PM
Vinícius Carreiro from Sâo Gonçalo RJ

Hi Andrew. There's something about Ubasute there

and here

Feb. 11 2011 01:05 PM
David Kleinschmidt

Interesting that the concept of abortion is termed "rational" earlier in the show, then the Japanese killing of self or elderly seems to be shown as a sad and unbelievable horror. At least the elderly can choose to not be a burden unlike the unborn, who have no voice.

Sep. 26 2010 01:05 AM
Balu from charleston SC

I feel that tampering with genes is treading into God's domain because mankind does not know what will result from its actions in this. In the worm experiment the extended lifespan came with the cost of a diminished reproductive system. Even if this feat were able to be applied to humans, wouldn't humans also have the same trade off? And if they did lose reproductive ability, the human race would lose its diversity and slowly go extinct. Immortality has always been a recurring motif in the eyes of men and it probably will not stop, but we see now the price of an extended life in worms, what would be our price? Another comment to make on this podcast is that even if we CAN extend the lives of humans, why should we? This would be "cheating death" in the plainest terms and maybe there is a reason that human beings live for the time that they do. Hypothetically speaking, what if this genetic tampering in humans leads to horrible mutations that were never supposed to occur? Is humanity as a whole wiling to pay, possibly, an enormous price for this knowledge?

Mar. 04 2010 08:50 PM
susan from new york city

I'm with John on the juxtaposition of the doubling the life worms span with the 'too many old people' piece as depicted in Japan. The idea of life span becoming longer is that the quality life stays better for longer too, right? If the gene that keeps you 'youthful' is not being squashed and the 'death' gene that creates infirmity and illness is being suppressed then isn't the question of who's going to take care of the old people a moot point since they should be able to take care of themselves? The idea isn't to have more old people but to have people stay young for longer periods of time. What I think is a more interesting debate is the fact that people would need to be having less children if our life spans increased so that we don't over tax our natural resources. Then the question becomes is it better to have people living longer who are theoretically becoming wiser with experience or is it more valuable to introduce new fresh life into society, a constant steam of less experienced people who take different kinds of risks. What is better for humanity at large? And would we be able to agree as a species how to conduct ourselves to ensure survival?

Jun. 18 2009 02:03 PM
Rozanne D. from Dallas

I also thought the comment of a 25 year lifespan for squirrels was odd, and I couldn't find any information anywhere else to back up this claim. Some sources say that squirrels can live a maximum life span of 10 years. I really wish I knew where the RadioLab guys got this info.

Apr. 30 2009 10:03 AM
David Olson from Lake Forest IL

In this segment of the program, you had on a professor from UCSF who claimed that rats have a lifespan of 3 years, and squirrels a lifespan of 25 years. I have been unable to verify that long a span for squirrels; most internet sites talk about spans of perhaps 5 or 6 years, which seems on the face of it more reasonable. I'm just curious whether there is verification of the 25 year claim. Thanks.

Jul. 31 2008 12:27 AM

I was intrigued by the Mortality podcast, but I was also disappointed that you did not take it as far as you could have. Unlike other RadioLab broadcasts, I was left with many unasked (and unanswered) questions.

For example, if the worms can have their life extended and be youthful and energetic, then things become an issue of morbidity not mortality? Part of the problem of old age as clearly demonstrate in the broadcast is inability to care for oneself, but the worm experiment seems to suggest that one can remain vigorous till the end. What would it mean to have an aged, yet functional society? Why would you need to get rid of the aged if they can still care for themselves?
Also, what evolutionary benefit is there to aging? Why would there be that gene that suppresses the youthful genes? Also, what is the relationship with reproduction and youth? Do people who don't reproduce stay more youthful? How about pets who are spayed before sexual maturity? What is the relationship between reproduction and aging? (The worm segment talked about greater youthfulness related to inability to reproduce?)

Dec. 06 2007 01:02 PM

I'm writing a paper on the -alteration of genes for less aging and longer life- for a class. Any additional information or sites where I can find additional information?

Oct. 30 2007 06:57 PM
Andrew from W-field, NJ

Are there any references for the tradition of 'Obaa-siteh' that was introduced in this segment? I can't find it anywhere.

Sep. 25 2007 09:21 AM

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