Ageing is a progressive failure of defence and repair processes that produces physiological frailty (the loss of organ reserve with age), loss of homeostasis and eventual death. Over the past ten years exceptional progress has been made in understanding both why the ageing process happens and the mechanisms that are responsible for it. The study of natural mutants that accelerate some, but not all, of the features of the human ageing process has now progressed to a degree that drug trials are either taking place or can be envisaged. Simultaneously, a series of mutations have been identified in different species that confer extended healthy life, indicating that the ageing process is much more malleable than might have been expected and that single interventions have the potential to delay the onset of multiple age-associated conditions. Data generated using these organisms have led to the formulation of a powerful new hypothesis, the 'green theory' of ageing. This proposes that a finite capacity to carry out broad-spectrum detoxification and recycling is the primary mechanistic limit on organismal lifespan. This is turn suggests important new experimental approaches and potential interventions designed to increase healthy lifespan.