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20 January 2019

Rejuvenation. Now. Easier than we think?

Filed under: aging, books — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 11:25 pm

Chronic poor health is caused by the accumulation of biological damage in our body. Eventually the damage builds to such an extent that it kills us. Before reaching that nadir, the damage weakens us, slows us down, and makes us more vulnerable to all kinds of illness.

Accordingly, if we want more vitality, for longer, we need to find therapies that undo the biological damage in our bodies. And we need to apply these therapies on a regular basis.

These two paragraphs summarise a view about health that is becoming increasingly common these days. One of the champions of this “find therapies to fix the damage” school is the biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey – chief science officer of the SENS Research Foundation. I write about this approach in, for example, Chapter 8, “Towards an abundance of health” of my own most recent book, “Sustainable Superabundance”.

The kinds of damage-repair therapies that transhumanist tend to talk about involve breakthrough new technologies – such as stem cell therapies, manipulation of genetics and epigenetics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and 3D bio-printing.

But what if there is already a very promising damage-repair treatment, whose power we frequently overlook?

Step forward Professor Matthew Walker of the Neuroscience department at UC Berkeley. Walker is also the founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science. Walker recently summarised the state-of-art understanding about sleep (and dreams), in his book “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams”. I started reading that book following a tip from London Futurists member Mark Goodman. That tip was one of the best I received in the whole of last year. Many thanks, Mark!

According to the wide research that Walker summarises in “Why We Sleep”, getting sufficient sound sleep on a regular basis is a great all-round boost to our health. Skimping on sleep – getting an average of only six hours a night, instead of the eight hours recommended – stores up lots of longer term damage. (For example: greater propensity to cancer, dementia, obesity, diabetes, heart condition…)

It’s not just a question of quantity of sleep. It’s a question of quality. Sometimes we have a sort of sleep – for example, when under the influence of alcohol – but that sleep doesn’t perform the rejuvenation miracles of good quality sleep.

It’s also a question of the different types of sleep – including the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep that accompanies dreams, and the four different levels of NREM (not-REM) sleep (sleep when we’re not dreaming). The different kinds of sleep are associated with different kinds of healing.

To be clear, sleep isn’t just for healing. Many kinds of memory are improved by the right kinds of sleep. And sleep can be a great boost to creativity too.

The number of diseases linked to poor quality sleep is both staggering and frightening. People who scorn getting a good night’s sleep – people who boast that they can get by on, say, five hours a night on average – are deluding themselves. If you don’t believe this, look into the research that Walker assembles and discusses.

Of course, there are limits to the kinds of repair that sleeping and dreaming can perform. These fine therapies, by themselves, won’t boost anyone’s life expectancy from 75, say, to 125, or beyond. For that kind of change, we’ll need the initiatives being researched by SENS (and developed by an increasing number of commercial companies). But if you want to increase the chance of you (and your loved ones) living long enough to benefit from the eventual availability of SENS-type treatments, changing your sleep habits could make all the difference.

As well as increasing your life expectancy, these improved habits have the potential to improve your focus, your memory, your creativity, and the way you interact positively and supportively with others.

Changing your diet is another way in which you might increase your life expectancy. As an aside, the best single book I have come across on that topic is “The Longevity Code: The New Science of Aging” by Kris Verburgh. (Verburgh’s book actually has a lot more in it than just analysis of the relation between diet and healthy aging. It should definitely be on your bookshelf.)

But what’s striking is that, although the connection between diet and healthy aging has been widely discussed, the connection between sleep and healthy aging has been relatively ignored. Walker’s book should start to amend that unfortunate state of ignorance.

There are another three big reasons why transhumanists (and people who share the same broad interests) should read “Why we sleep”. First, the book offers (directly and indirectly) lots of insights about the nature of consciousness, as explored through the discussion of consciousness in different sleep states, including dreaming. I’m sure that there are insights ready to be sparked by some of these sections, for AI researchers struggling with particular conceptual problems.

Second, Walker discusses broader social factors connected with sleep (and why so many people sleep badly these days). The sheer scale of lives lost by drivers drifting into “micro sleeps” is astonishing: accidents caused by drowsiness exceed those caused by drugs and alcohol. The damage caused by sleeping pills is another eye-opener. It also turns out there’s a lot of inertia in society – society often resists changes that would be in its own best interest! The adverse practice of the medical industry pushing junior doctors to the limit, sleepwise, is just one case. But the book also has some great examples, in the closing chapters, about positive social change. One involves the time at which schools start. It turns out that moving the start time later by 30 minutes, or one hour, can have a big impact on successful learning, as well as on the prevalence of teenage depression (not to mention the likelihood of students having car accidents en route to school).

Third, Walker identifies both risks and opportunities from new technologies, as regards changing sleep quality. Small doses of electricity applied to the scalp can significantly improve sleep. Other mechanisms look like they can improve our dreams. In the not-so-distant future, the ways in which we sleep and dream might be quite different from today. Technology, if used wisely, could lead us to patterns of sleeping and dreaming in which rejuvenation happens more profoundly.

To conclude: I really liked the first few chapters of “Why We Sleep”, and wondered how the book could continue at the same level of engagement over the remainder of its 340 pages of content. But it did – it was thoroughly interesting all the way through!

Image source: Claudio_Scott on Pixabay.

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