Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Should We Live to 1,000?

PRINCETON – On which problems should we focus research in medicine and the biological sciences? There is a strong argument for tackling the diseases that kill the most people –diseases like malaria, measles, and diarrhea, which kill millions in developing countries, but very few in the developed world.

Developed countries, however, devote most of their research funds to the diseases from which their citizens suffer, and that seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Given that constraint, which medical breakthrough would do the most to improve our lives?

If your first thought is “a cure for cancer” or “a cure for heart disease,” think again. Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer of SENS Foundation and the world’s most prominent advocate of anti-aging research, argues that it makes no sense to spend the vast majority of our medical resources on trying to combat the diseases of aging without tackling aging itself. If we cure one of these diseases, those who would have died from it can expect to succumb to another in a few years. The benefit is therefore modest.

In developed countries, aging is the ultimate cause of 90% of all human deaths; thus, treating aging is a form of preventive medicine for all of the diseases of old age. Moreover, even before aging leads to our death, it reduces our capacity to enjoy our own lives and to contribute positively to the lives of others. So, instead of targeting specific diseases that are much more likely to occur when people have reached a certain age, wouldn’t a better strategy be to attempt to forestall or repair the damage done to our bodies by the aging process?

De Grey believes that even modest progress in this area over the coming decade could lead to a dramatic extension of the human lifespan. All we need to do is reach what he calls “longevity escape velocity” – that is, the point at which we can extend life sufficiently to allow time for further scientific progress to permit additional extensions, and thus further progress and greater longevity. Speaking recently at Princeton University, de Grey said: “We don’t know how old the first person who will live to 150 is today, but the first person to live to 1,000 is almost certainly less than 20 years younger.”

What most attracts de Grey about this prospect is not living forever, but rather the extension of healthy, youthful life that would come with a degree of control over the process of aging. In developed countries, enabling those who are young or middle-aged to remain youthful longer would attenuate the looming demographic problem of an historically unprecedented proportion of the population reaching advanced age – and often becoming dependent on younger people.

On the other hand, we still need to pose the ethical question: Are we being selfish in seeking to extend our lives so dramatically? And, if we succeed, will the outcome be good for some but unfair to others?

People in rich countries already can expect to live about 30 years longer than people in the poorest countries. If we discover how to slow aging, we might have a world in which the poor majority must face death at a time when members of the rich minority are only one-tenth of the way through their expected lifespans.

That disparity is one reason to believe that overcoming aging will increase the stock of injustice in the world. Another is that if people continue to be born, while others do not die, the planet’s population will increase at an even faster rate than it is now, which will likewise make life for some much worse than it would have been otherwise.

Whether we can overcome these objections depends on our degree of optimism about future technological and economic advances. De Grey’s response to the first objection is that, while anti-aging treatment may be expensive initially, the price is likely to drop, as it has for so many other innovations, from computers to the drugs that prevent the development of AIDS. If the world can continue to develop economically and technologically, people will become wealthier, and, in the long run, anti-aging treatment will benefit everyone. So why not get started and make it a priority now?

As for the second objection, contrary to what most people assume, success in overcoming aging could itself give us breathing space to find solutions to the population problem, because it would also delay or eliminate menopause, enabling women to have their first children much later than they can now. If economic development continues, fertility rates in developing countries will fall, as they have in developed countries. In the end, technology, too, may help to overcome the population objection, by providing new sources of energy that do not increase our carbon footprint.

The population objection raises a deeper philosophical question. If our planet has a finite capacity to support human life, is it better to have fewer people living longer lives, or more people living shorter lives? One reason for thinking it better to have fewer people living longer lives is that only those who are born know what death deprives them of; those who do not exist cannot know what they are missing.

De Grey has set up SENS Foundation to promote research into anti-aging. By most standards, his fundraising efforts have been successful, for the foundation now has an annual budget of around $4 million. But that is still pitifully small by the standards of medical research foundations. De Grey might be mistaken, but if there is only a small chance that he is right, the huge pay-offs make anti-aging research a better bet than areas of medical research that are currently far better funded.

Read more from the "An Ethical Mind" Focal Point.

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  1. Commentedhari naidu

    From a purely ethical and moral perspective, birth and death are categorical imperatives of the Creator.

    Aging per se is not the physiological issue but a symptom.

    @+75 I've found that prevention of pain - due to aging - is more critical and provides for a healthy and long life. Of course, diet and exercise is essential; but good health is defined by lack of muscular pain in an aging body.

    Now, after remarkable success with ailing foot of racing horses and sportsman, there is medicinal recourse to interleukin plasma from human body to remedy orthopedic pain.

    Only fools waste their time on longevity - without recognizing preconditions for a life without pain.

  2. CommentedAyse Tezcan

    More important question is evolutionary plausibility. Unless we find other planets to inhabit and resources to sustain, our evolutionary drive will result in new ways of ending our existence to open space and resources for our offsprings. Of course unless we lose this trait.

  3. CommentedGary Mezo

    LIVE TO 250+ ??? WE AGREE THAT Basic human life processes/systems are programmed to live 250+ years as Aubrey de Grey states, but the declination of health leading to premature demise is principally secondary to a life-long systemwide cascade of events caused by arteriosclerosis. Stop arteriosclerosis early on in the 20's-30's or reverse arteriosclerosis to that stage and man can continue to live to ~250. Our R&D shows that arteriosclerosis is primarily a waxing-waning inflammatory cascade reaction to secondary to a lifelong infectious burden. We believe that we have isolated the pathogen, have done research on this endovascular problem for 20+ years and have developed a therapeutic to reverse the arteriosclerotic plaque burden.....we even have IRB-Monitored, peer-reviewed, published clinical trials conducted by cardiologists.....Our physicians usually treat themselves and their families first. Read about it and address your own mortality-issues! http://www.nanobiotech.us/nanobactx

  4. CommentedKennita Watson

    People may feel less need to cram when they have no time limit. At that point the obsessive behavior will be fully unmasked as the pathology it is, and can be treated accordingly.

  5. CommentedTom Shillock

    I seems to me that in order to biomedically target the aging process as opposed to the diseases of aging it would help to have a biologically compelling definition of aging process that that distinguishes it from the diseases of aging and that guides experimental research. That would seem to be a job well suited to an analytic philosopher.

  6. CommentedNathan Coppedge

    In my conceptual studies of immortality, I think it is worth underscoring that there are multiple strategies to achieving longevity.

    One is a path to wisdom, minimal fitness and no terrible mistakes, symbolized by age before youth, eliminated by some sort of chronic effort, producing a pragmatic remainder.

    Another is sheer fitness, which has been more popular, but poses the problem of strain and rest, which can cause fatty accumulations, as has often been experienced by athletes. I think stress is under-represented amongst studies of athletes.

    A third method is more similar to vampirism, and represents stimulating the body with drugs, or refurbishing the blood through artificial means. In the best cases it might involve genetic treatments.

    A fourth method involves exceptional adaptation such as having an 'immortality threshold', that is, highly specific responses to environment gradually 'affect' immortality. This may be prone to sudden changes, eliminating it's long-term benefit, but may supplement other methods.

    I suspect that if there are other primary methods than these (and 'drug' may fit under multiple of these categories ultimately) then it involves nobility or grace of some kind, perhaps resulting from specific lessons learned in older age.

    Certainly an interesting subject. I hope that I've been helpful in clarifying genii (Four Genii !) related to immortality.

  7. CommentedJerry Russell

    The trend suggests we actually need longevity to survive as a species. Studies show an increase in quality of life decreases our fertility rate, and the world is on a trend to dip below sustainability within a generation. Forget those that scream overpopulation, it's foolish to look at our raw population surpassing 7 billion and suggesting runaway growth.

    Bonus thought, when we dramatically increase our longevity and quality of life we could end up as some race mostly composed of thousand+ year old elders who rarely breed. Which in all honesty is better for the universe, greater chance of other species thriving and joining us.

    Info and extra reading:
    The rate of sustainability for developed societies is 2.1 kids, today we have Australia at 1.92, US at 1.9 and UK is 1.94 (wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_fertility_rate#Replacement_rates)

    1. CommentedKennita Watson

      The universe is nice and all, but I do NOT volunteer to die for its sake. Besides, you _way_ overestimate your significance, and even the significance of the entire planet, if you think that the universe will care, or even notice, anything we do, no matter how dire? We just discovered a black hole the mass of around 30 billion suns, about 250 million light-years away. Our sun could go nova and it would have immeasurably less impact than one molecule of acid in the Pacific Ocean. The universe will be fine; it's you who are under a death sentence.

  8. CommentedLuke Parrish

    I have a conviction about the potential for cryonics research that is similar in some respects to de Grey's regarding antiaging research. I think that perhaps if we funded research into cryobiology, there would be breakthroughs that would lead to being able to put people's vital status on hold, preventing them from aging or feeling suffering.

    Contemporary cryonics is not quite like that because of the requirement of legal death beforehand (which often involves an extended agonal period), and because the great uncertainty of ever coming back means that most people would not want to enter such a state until in the late stages of terminal illness anyway. True medical suspended animation would consist of something that does no damage beyond our ability to repair, and could be entered much earlier in the process (or even be used for non-terminal illnesses that are otherwise a strain on resources such as a flu pandemic).

    On the other hand, the hope of reanimation and anticipation of actually seeing the future does add something positive and irreplaceable for current cryonics cases -- enlivening an otherwise hopeless terminal illness. This hope of seeing the future (space travel, world peace, and so forth) is one of the things about life extension that I find thrilling, in addition to the hope of escaping near-term death.

  9. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I think the much more important question is what can we do with those years we spend in this life in a useful, purposeful fashion.
    At the moment all we care about how much pleasure we cram into ourselves in a very self centred, self obsessed manner, fully accepting the marketing messages: "you deserve it", "life is only about pleasure", "you need to have this and that..." and so on.
    The problem is that in the process of chasing as much self-fulfilment as possible we became more unhappy and depressed than ever before, all human institutions are falling apart from the family unit to the global human system. We even lost our hope for a better future, simply hoping to survive.
    If we continue like this, by extending human lifespan we simply create an army of zombies wandering around in a very unhappy life for decades.
    People have to start figuring out what truly gives lasting fulfilment in today's global, interconnected reality, where people are tied together as in a single family.
    If we managed to figure out this "meaning of life" question this might lead to the solution to the global crisis and all the problems humanity is facing today.

    1. CommentedLuke Parrish

      Depression and the harm of counterproductive/suboptimal lifestyles have huge utilitarian potential, and this is amplified by longer lives. However, I'm not convinced that we are all doing so poorly that we should let it distract us from life extension research. Certainly we can afford to fund the endeavor a bit more. Hope for the future is itself something of an antidepressant.

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