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Is Immortality Worth It?

Almost everyone would welcome an extension of their healthy lifespan, and some scientists are looking at increasingly extreme ways to achieve that. But any major breakthrough in this area could have unwanted and far-reaching demographic, social, and economic implications.

CAMBRIDGE – Humans have long sought the elixir of youth, so it is not surprising that even non-scientists closely follow the latest research into aging. But is what most people consider simply a fact of life actually a “disease” that can be cured? Or is there some insurmountable limit to the lifespan of human bodies?

Of course, almost everyone would welcome an extension of their healthy lifespan, and some scientists are looking at increasingly extreme ways to achieve that. Yet if we could stay alive only with the help of extreme measures, many of us would opt instead for non-resuscitation and solely palliative treatment. We might also find comfort in having the option of “assisted dying” as soon as our quality of life and our prognosis dipped below a certain threshold. Moreover, a huge increase in life expectancy could have undesirable and far-reaching consequences for society as a whole.

Much serious research into aging now focuses on stretches of DNA called telomeres that shorten as people age. By adjusting the telomeres of nematode worms, for example, scientists have managed to increase the lifespan of these creatures tenfold, although the same approach has less effect on more complex animals. The only effective way to extend the life of rats is to give them a near-starvation diet. But the naked mole rat may have some special biological lessons for us; some of them live more than 30 years – several times longer than the lifespan of other small mammals.

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