Tortoises can help us understand how to live longer, but do we want to?

A new study of turtles and tortoises published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy Of Sciences found that they barely aged at all in some instances. The lead author of the study, Fernando Colchero, of the University of Southern Denmark, said: “We will never be immortal. What we might be able to do, though, is find ways to reduce considerably the increased risk of death with age.”

Jonathan on St. Helena. Said to to 190 or the Times says approaching 300. Photo: Sally Kettle.

I think it might be useful if Fernando Colchero organised a poll and asked a large population of elderly people whether they wanted to live longer! My guess is that they don’t. I am not sure that people in general want to live longer than about 80 years unless humankind can improve their behaviour to make life more pleasant. I don’t want to paint a negative picture but by the time you get to your middle seventies you sometimes feel that you have had enough!

I don’t see the point of research to extend the life of humans unless we do it in the context of what humans desire and what our objectives are on this planet. Do we want to try and improve the planets or destroy it? Do we want to try and live together in harmony or are we going to consistently pull in different directions and keep procreating without considering the consequences?

His research indicated that there are biological mechanisms which keep the cells of the body youthful. His suggestion is that we simply have to find what these mechanisms are. The mechanisms of ageing in humans appeared to be non-existent in some species of tortoises.

Colchero and his colleagues looked at a database of 25,000 members of 52 species of turtles and tortoises. He found that the human pattern of ageing didn’t apply to them. When humans get to 65 years of age they are about a hundred times more likely to die in the next year than if they were 30 years of age.

He said that for turtles and tortoises the chances of dying in any year did not increase with age. He claims that humans have gone for a strategy in which energy is expended to reproduce as soon as humans reach sexual maturity. This is because in the past our chances of dying early of injury or disease were high.

By contrast, tortoises and turtles are safe from injury behind their shell which makes them play the long game. Whereas humans choose reproduction, tortoises chooses survival. He claims that “There are trade-offs in how much energy you can allocate to survival and how much to reproduction”. Tortoises keep growing after they reach maturity and they can be better at reproducing when they are older.

For example, Jonathan, is a tortoise living on St Helena and he is approaching his third century. He is described as having a “tremendous libido”. He enjoys the ladies when the sun is out, it is said. That does not mean that long-lived tortoises don’t become ill; Jonathan is blind.

Note: Some websites say Johnathan is 190 years old.

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