Like 'time', everyone knows what ageing is until we try to pin it down. When does it begin? How does it happen and why? What lies ahead for each of us individuals, and would we want to live forever, given the option?
The question of how and why organisms age has teased scientists for centuries, yet there is still no agreement. There are a myriad of competing theories, from the idea that ageing is a simple wear and tear process, like the rusting of a car, to the belief that ageing and death are genetically programmed and controlled. In fact, there is no clearly defined limit to life, and no single, predictable programme playing itself out: different things are happening within and between tissues, and each system or organ accumulates damage at its own pace, according to the kind of insults imposed on it by daily living.
Sometime before 2020, the number of people over sixty-five worldwide will, for the first time, be greater than the number of 0-4 year olds; and by 2050 there are likely to be 2.5 times as many older people in the world as toddlers. With statistics like these, society is understandably preoccupied with the 'greying of the world', and there is a huge community of scientists exploring the phenomenon from every angle. Sue Armstrong tells the story of society's quest to understand ageing through the eyes of the scientists themselves, as well as through the 'ordinary' people who exemplify the mysteries of ageing – from those who suffer from the premature ageing condition, Hutchinson-Gilford syndrome, to people still running marathons in their 80s.
Borrowed Time will investigate such mind-boggling experiments as transfusing young blood into old rodents, and research into transplanting the first human head, amongst many others. It will explore where science is taking us and what issues are being raised from a psychological, philosophical and ethical perspective, through interviews with, and profiles of, key scientists in the field and the people who represent interesting and important aspects of ageing.
Sue Armstrong is a science writer and broadcaster. As a foreign correspondent based in Brussels and then South Africa, she worked for (among others) New Scientist magazine and BBC World Service radio. She has worked as a consultant writer for the World Health Organization and UNAIDS for more than 25 years, and was commissioned by the WHO to write a book on AIDS, for which she reported from many of the worst-affected countries of Africa and Asia. Her book on pathology, A Matter of Life and Death, was published in 2010. p53: The gene that cracked the cancer code, published in 2014, was highly commended by the British Medical Association and shortlisted for the BMA Book Awards 2015 in the ‘basis of medicine’ category. She lives in Edinburgh.