Life, extended

By Robert Hickson 07/06/2014


Myths and legends, as well as more recent stories, have cautionary tales about those seeking immortality. But there are still those who long not just for a few more years of life, but decades extra before shuffling off this mortal coil.

There seems plenty going on in the life extension world at the moment. Some good serious research, and others more aspirational fancies.

First up, the “golden age” Paleolithic life style promoted by John Durant (and others). This is a low tech dietary approach through avoidance of grains and dairy products. Paleolithic women and men weren’t known for longevity (short, sharp and brutal lives, most likely), but sure a better diet probably doesn’t hurt. But who amongst us will stick to such a plan for a few months, let alone a lifetime?

Then there’s the medicated route. Not just vitamins (and lots of them, al la Ray Kurzweil), but also the promise of tablets or elixirs formulated from sirtuin 1 (SIRT1)-like compounds. Can this translate from mice in a lab to our real world? Seems to me like a silver bullet too simple to counter our genetic and environmental diversity.

Cryogenics is back! Admittedly, the current use is to buy just a few hours time for fatal wounds and injuries while the emergency teams try to sort out the mess.  Still, it could be an attractive latch ditch effort by some to stop time until a particular cure is found.  Frozen? “Let it go!”, say I.

Next, the 3D print option where you could, perhaps, replace your failing or broken body parts with printed to order new bits. Progress on printing organs is moving quickly;  Kidneyskull, blood vessels (at least little ones). Could we print a heart?  What about a whole body? One NASA engineer suggests that this could be how we colonise planets.

This is cloning 2.0, without the same moral and ethical dilemmas. But with its own particular set we haven’t yet fully grappled with.

A more proactive but challenging option to get to extreme longevity is Aubrey de Grey’s mission to undertake cellular and molecular repairs to slow or stop ageing in the first place. He talked with Kim Hill a few weeks ago

Charlotte Allen has a very good article about him, and the Paleo-diet folk. De Grey’s talk of soon having the one thousand year old man blows his credibility away. As does his metaphor of humans being just like a car or another machine, with readily replaceable parts. This seems common amongst those who see humans, and other organisms, as “hackable”. As is the focus on technological fixes divorced from broader environmental factors.

Allen points out that more conventional scientists consider de Grey’s focus on seven cellular and molecular pathways is too simplistic.

Lastly, is the transhumanist quest where we just become one with the machine. There is still a very long way (if there is a way at all) to go from inserting false memories into mice to uploading a whole brain.

Allen highlights the fact that most of those involved in extreme life extension are male. I’m not convinced by her suggestions that this is because the male of the species is more likely to be attracted to the demanding regimes typically required of them, or because the cult-like status appeals more. The sample size is too small. She also suggests that loss of religious faith in the west may be a factor stimulating the pursuit of longevity, though some surveys don’t indicate atheists are any more likely than theists in aspiring to longer lives.

The big questions associated with such aspirations are “why seek to push the limits of life span?”, “even if we can should we?”, and “what are the consequences if we do?”

We’ve already dramatically extended life spans by decades over the last few hundred years, thanks to better nutrition, living conditions, and medicines. As Vaupel noted [Pdf] people are entering old age in better health. Blakely & Woodward illustrate in their recent blog that death rates in NZ continue to decline

For example, on average cancer treatment enables patients to live six years longer [Pdf] than 40 years ago

Prospects for nanobots roving our bloodstream to kill and fix may have moved closer with reports of “Magnetosperm” potentially able to carry drugs to hard to reach places

So what’s different about further adding to our lifespan?  Some ethicists see nothing wrong with seeking to extend life dramatically, if it helps save lives If we and our parents have benefited from longer lives, what right do we have to limit our descendants life spans?

Living longer doesn’t tend to appeal to the masses at the moment (in the US at least, where, ironically many of the life extenders seem to reside)  This seems to be because we don’t equate “quantity” of live with its quality. Who wants to live an extra 50 years if it’s just a longer stay in a rest home? And will having more oldies add too much financial burden to societies?

However, quality of old age, at least for affluent folk, does seem to be improving.  But more needs to be done about understanding what contributes to the quality of old age to inform research and policy.

Vaupel pointed out that deterioration of the body is postponed not reduced. So rather than focusing on longer life, its more probable that most of the research will be directed to improving the quality of our years. More active centenarians rather than a few 150 year olds. Some of those pursuing extreme longevity may make valuable contributions to that.

Vaupel highlights some life style implications of more people living longer. If living well to over a hundred becomes more certain, why spend your first two or three decades in the education system, then having families and careers, and then many decades of leisure? You could mix these up (particularly if technologies continue to develop that assist later reproduction).

Societies with lots more old people are also likely to result in policies that benefit them rather than the younger generations, who may also not have the educational and work opportunities that their seniors had.  .

What happens if, on top of this, you have lots more robots and computers taking over the more traditional blue and white collar jobs, while the oldies refuse to stop working?

But what if the youth of the day are more than happy to leave the work to the old folks – if they have enough money – to pursue their own fulfilling, creative lives or “find themselves”?

The epic of Gilgamesh still says it well:

“Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”