Nature’s paradox : immortality ensures mortality

Last Saturday, I went garage-sale hopping in West Seattle – something I ordinarily wouldn’t do, but a community-wide initiative in an upscale neighborhood meant I could peek into beautifully designed homes, and gain a voyeuristic view of their odds-and-ends collections … punctuated by striking glimpses of the Puget Sound on a beautiful, sunny Seattle spring day. An odd but fun adventure. In my first ever garage-sale purchase, I picked up a hardcover copy of Dr. Andew Weil’s Healthy Aging : A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-being (1) on one of my stops, indeed high value for a paltry $2. Later into the weekend, when I began to read the introduction, I was completely riveted by Dr. Weil’s framing of the discussion on aging with his stance on death … specifically, a biologically-based nuance on mortality and immortality.

Dr. Weil starts by explaning that the book is about debunking negative associations with aging and death, and detailing how healthy aging is not about reversing the impacts of age (thereby denying age and death), but about shrinking the time between morbid disease and death to a bare minimum. To frame this discussion, Dr. Weil begins by rooting the process of aging at the biological, cellular level, and delves into scientific detail of what makes a normal cell mortal. In short, it is its inability to divide and multiply after a pre-set, genetically coded number of times called the Hayflick limit, which is different for different life forms, and which for humans, is about 50. (What limits a cell’s capability to divide is the gradual reduction in the length of an end-piece in its DNA strands called a telomere, and telomeres are in turn dictated by the enzyme telomerase, which is active in stem cells and later becomes dormant in other normal adult cells.)

In other words, human mortality is due to cellular mortality. With this, Dr. Weil invokes a fascinating and brilliant nuance: the only cells which are capable of being immortal are cancerous cells, (within which the enzyme telomerase becomes abnormally active). In particular, a breed called HeLa (2) cells can multiply indefinitely and forever! Such immortal cells, when they grow and multiply indefinitely, essentially kill the very organism they are housed within! So, cancer is not simply a disease, but in its essence, it is the insurance for mortality.

To me this little detail was simply staggering, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring. Consider this one more time – a normal cell is mortal, which makes us mortal. And as soon as a cell becomes immortal, it works not to regenerate us, but to kill us faster than the normal cells would have done! The design of our mortality is therefore built-in, down to the DNA strands within our very cells – and the accidental attribute of immortality only serves to speed up our mortality!

Such then, is nature’s amazing and awesome paradox: immortality ensures mortality.


  1. My sabbatical from a long-term corporate job (in a global design firm), initiated just before the economic downturn hit in 2008, was to find health, happiness and fulfilment in a holistic way. While depth and meaning in occupational direction, community initiatives and relationships form a huge part of this endeavor, I realized quickly that health must always come first. My search for longer-term balance in health and mitigation of chronic migraines, IBS, fatigue, weight and hair problems has led me to several initiatives, each of which probably merits its own blog post. Needless to say, diet and nutrition, sleep and stress reduction and the right exercise (there are many myths about exercise that I am uncovering…) are a huge part of this quest, and some doctors whose works and holistic philosophies have had a significant impact on my thinking and process are Drs. Diana Schwarzbein,  Andrew Weil and Carolyn Bernstein.
  2. The story of HeLa cells and why they came to be called so after an unknown, poor, long-dead, African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating one. See page 12 of the book if you ever get your hands on it.

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta


  1. Khushi

    Very interesting. I am glad you are focusing on health first. It got me thinking as I have been ignoring my own health thinking I will make up for it later.

  2. Anonymous

    On the topic of healthy aging, have you seen the Dove ad on aging – Watch it its great.

  3. Anonymous

    I wish you all the best with your health problems. Your spirit is the most healthy possible!

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