Living longer

By Robert Hickson 29/03/2015


Imagine, in 20 or 30 years, going to your health preservation service provider to receive your annual injections to remove senescent cells and down regulate selected gene expression in the hypothalamus, alongside a transfusion of synthetic “young” blood to promote tissue repair and healthier ageing.

Later on you may take a pill to check your body for early stage cancers, while you also wear a bracelet or implantable sensor that constantly monitors for other diseases and zaps them dead.

Is ultra-long life, or at least a longer healthier old age, within reach through such “elixirs”, pills and bracelets? And if so, does this mean youthful excesses could be simply annulled through a biological “hack”? While not a common view, Aubrey de Grey considers ageing a disease that is treatable.

That’s taking things too far, but there is a growing field of research looking at slowing down the ageing processes. The Google-back Calico Labs and the Buck Institute are just two of the well funded research ventures.

Long life isn’t usually just about healthcare. Better diets and living conditions also played critical roles in boosting life spans over the last century. Bill Gifford noted in an interview on Radio New Zealand that those who study longevity often had similar traits “As I was hanging out with these people over the years, I noticed the incremental things they did. They took the stairs, never the elevator. When we went to lunch, they ate small meals.”

However, there certainly seems to be a growing effort to explore boosting life span with or without sweating the small stuff. If such treatments worked and were proven safe, three issues arise. The first two are “who would or should have access to them?”, and “what would the consequences be?”

 

Who?

How much would life extension treatments cost? Given the value they potential provide, I’d predict they wouldn’t be cheap. Economically, would it be good policy to make such treatments free to all, or at least free (or subsidized) for the middle aged where they could have the greatest effect?

Even if enhanced longevity reduced the burden on the health care system it doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be publicly funded for. This is shown by the limited free access to gastric bypass surgery currently illustrates .

Maybe, you’d have to qualify for a subsidy through meeting milestones for trackable fitness activities and caloric intake, along with having specific genetic variants.

Without an economic windfall, what would not be funded to make room for longevity procedures in the health system?

Perhaps it will be more likely that such treatments are available only to the well-off or those with the right health insurance policy? Maybe you will need to take a rejuvenating cruise outside of our territorial waters, or a “holiday” to an immortality centre somewhere in Asia, where the regulatory oversight for such treatments is lower.

In New Zealand we already have disparities in life expectancy between Maori and non-Maori. These are decreasing, but there is still a gap. Will restricted access to longevity treatments widen such disparities, or could they be used to remove the differences?

Trends in life expectancy at birth in New Zealand. Source: Statistics NZ
Trends in life expectancy at birth in New Zealand. Source: Statistics NZ

 

What?

Lazarus Long, Nicolas Flamel, Dorian Gray, Connor MacLeod, Bowerick Wowbagger , Dr Who, and the Struldbrugs. These are some of the, often, sad or tragic long-lived fictional beings. (Female immortals, apart from some elven queens and wicked witches, appear to be rare beings).

If lots of people take the “elixir”, what will this presumably healthy active bunch of people do to occupy their extra decade(s)? If algorithms and robots dominate much of society’s economic activities will there be any paid employment for the old let alone the young?

On the other hand, would an elixir be viewed as an economic instrument (like quantitative easing), providing a sudden boost in population numbers to reverse an economic downturn caused by stagnant or declining populations?

What if such elixirs help the body but the brain not so much? Will we create a society with lots of healthy but befuddled elderly? Are health budgets and research better targeted anyway at reducing dementia rather than prolonging life?

We expect that treating diseases or other medical conditions will extend and/or improve quality of life. Some of us exercise, watch what we eat and drink, have regular health check-ups and do things to stay mentally alert in the hope that we’ll age well.

Will we value longer life less if we don’t need to make such an effort to acquire it?

Some think that medical intervention purely for the purpose of extending an otherwise healthy life is morally wrong. Radical life extension (adding decades rather than years to our lifespan) could affect how we view marriage, procreation, or our perception of “what it means to be human” (though there are many views of what a “human” is or should be). Will we value mortality less, “waste” our days and nights, and pay little heed to the younger generations if death appears to become more theoretical?

The Struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels didn’t combine youthfulness with longevity. Once they reached eighty they had much of their property confiscated by relatives, weren’t allowed to work or buy land, and only received a pittance in support to stop them monopolizing resources.

Maybe in real life the situation would be reversed. Could the younger generations be denied key decision-making powers because the uppity oldies just don’t want to let go of privilege?

 

Why?

The more critical question about radical life extension, and the one less often posed, is not can we radically extend lifespan or what will the consequences be. It is “why?” For some in the field it seems to be just an interesting problem to solve, or one that will help them put off a bit longer the inevitable. But life is more about what you do in it rather than how long you live.

Certainly for the exceptionally talented and gifted having them live longer, and able to continue to enrich our lives, would be welcome. But for most of us would our living longer make a difference to what we do or what we contribute?


0 Responses to “Living longer”

  • I suspect that the present-day drive to extend life is, under the layers of superficial arguments, nothing more than a modern-day secular version of the age-old fear of death and the quest for eternal life.

  • I have just finished reading “The World we Made: Alex McKay’s Story from 2050″ By Jonathon Porritt. Phaidon Press. (9780714863610 | 0714863610 )

    Interestingly enough,although Jonathon introduced medical advances, similar to those Robert describes here there was no drama around the longer lives; perhaps because in the sustainable word described by Jonathan society had chosen a cooperative, sustainable path in response to climate change and life was good.

    What I am saying is that longer life technology will be a boon or a curse (or between) based on the broader interdisciplinary choices society and individuals make.

    (And in the absence of an imaginary hell I have no reason to fear death).

    I enjoyed this book, the author encouraged me to think a little differently, and he provided further information supporting the path to new social systems that are resilient, just and sustainable. I recommend this book.

  • Ray Kurzweil, probably the worlds most successful living futurist, has humans able to abandon our bodies and take on entirely software based existence by the 2030’s. If he is right, and most of his predictions have only been off by a few years, resource and wealth constraints are unlikely to be a big issue. Even if it takes a long time for most people to decide to make the transition, the rapidly decreasing numbers of “biologicals” should greatly diminish resource constraints.