The Ubiquity of the Tithonus Error

This is an interesting experiment: find any random person you know and ask them what the downside would be to using better medicine to live for 150 years. Nine times out of ten, I'll wager, your friend will tell you that living for so long would be terrible because a person would spend most of his or her life decrepit, increasingly crippled by age-related conditions. In otherwords, your random friend thinks that "healthy life extension" means "being aged for longer."

This preconception about the way in which healthy life extension works is known as the Tithonus Error. It is widespread to the point of ubiquity, unfortunately. Most people dismiss healthy life extension out of hand precisely because they see no attraction in being - as they assume - increasingly aged and debilitated.

The Tithonus Error gains its name from ancient myth. As Chris Lawson writes:

In Greek mythology, Tithonus was a handsome mortal who fell in love with Eos, the goddess of the dawn. Eos realised that her beloved Tithonus was destined to age and die. She begged Zeus to grant her lover immortal life.

Zeus was a jealous god, prone to acts of deception in order to seduce beautiful gods and mortals, and he was not pleased with Eos's infatuation with a rival. In a classic Devil's Bargain, he granted Eos's wish -- literally. He made Tithonus immortal, but did not grant him eternal youth.

As Tithonus aged, he became increasingly debilitated and demented, eventually driving Eos to distraction with his constant babbling.

In despair, she turned Tithonus into a grasshopper. In Greek mythology, the grasshopper is immortal. (In a close cultural parallel, the Chinese believed that locusts live forever.) This myth also explains why grasshoppers chirrup ceaselessly, like demented old men.

As Chris goes on to explain in an article well worth reading, modern medicine will never lead to a world of "debilitated, demented" aged people. Healthy life extension means extending the healthy part of your life span, not more years of infirmity. Fighting the Tithonus Error was why I coined the phrase "healthy life extension" and go to such pains to use it everywhere rather than the more commonly used "life extension." (I'm sure I'm not the first to do this. The term "health span" is also widely used, for many of the same reasons).

In order to widen the appeal of healthy life extension and gain widespread support for serious anti-aging research, we must overcome barriers imposed by misconceptions like the Tithonus Error. This is one reason why education, of both the media and the public, is so important to the future of health and longevity.


No, i've done the experiments many times. The number one answer is 'boredom'.

Posted by: Alejandro Dubrovsky at March 23rd, 2004 9:07 PM

The assumption of boredom, I think, is connected to another common misperception: that anti-aging technologies imply people will be forced to use them to live longer than they would have wanted. I'll talk about that in a later post.

Posted by: Reason at March 23rd, 2004 9:15 PM

Morton Kondrake over at Sage Crossroads mentioned in a recent debate (the one with Aubrey) that the downside to living so long would be not being able to retire. That you would be forced to continue working much longer.

Aubrey de Grey agreed that you may have to work longer, but you would want to work longer. You wouldn't be a tired old man at age 65. Provided you enjoy your work you will want to continue. Aubrey, of course, has a job that engages him intellectually. He enjoys his work.

Both Morton and Aubrey have good points. Morton is right that many wouldn't want to continue working after age 65 regardless of the shape of their bodies. Some people have jobs they hate.

Okay, so now its 2035. You're 65 years old and you have some retirement saved up. You hate your job, but you can't afford both life extension and retirement. What do you do?

Opinions may differ, but I'd take life extension and change jobs. Presumably you wouldn't still have the responsiblities of supporting children at that age, perhaps you could afford to tighten the belt for a few years and return to school. Student loans all over again, but you have your youth back AND have kept the wisdom of your years.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at March 24th, 2004 9:11 AM

I think the emphasis here should be that real anti-aging would medicine provide you with an option that you didn't have before. No-one is forcing you to take it, and it's your decision.

Posted by: Reason at March 24th, 2004 12:31 PM

I'm from India and over seventy and active both physically and mentally. However, I'm not as active as a youth.
Now I've taken a course in fiction writing. I hope I'll turn out some good fiction in course of time.
If someone interested in long life, keeps on exploring new grounds and moving, question of boredom won't rise. On the contrary, it may be exciting.

Posted by: Nalinaksha Mutsuddi at April 5th, 2004 6:19 PM

Live to be 150? Sounds great but... oh no, I can't imagine working for 100+ years. I work as a software engineer and although I enjoy the money and perks such a job confers, I couldn't do it for 100 years, it would drive me insane!!!

Yes, you could go back to university and study something new, but you are presuming that everyone has the ability and desire to retrain in a new discipline. Should less intellectual people just die because they can't retrain, and they'd be bored to tears prolonging their life?

I also think attitude (not biological aging) takes away desire to move to something new. I remember when I was 20 I was young and keen to develop really good software, now I am 33 the job is mundane - the fun days were back in DOS days when one man could make a lot of money with a product, now I am just a pleb like the rest. I really don't know what else I'd like to do in life.

If we lived to be 200,500... I just couldn't imagine changing career every 100 years or so.

Now, looking 20 years old up til I'm 100... THAT would be something I'd like. You don't live longer, you just have more fun in that time; vanity, yes, but a life of wine, women and song sounds fun to me!

Posted by: Scott at October 28th, 2005 9:00 AM

Personally i can't think of a moron who could not learn at least something in 100+ years. Less motivated people are a different story, they probably consider dying a better option than making big changes in their lives and they should be able to make that choice. Living long and rich life might have nothing to do with intelligence anyway.

In Finland we have an old saying: "simple people enjoy simple things".

Posted by: Tapani at November 14th, 2005 5:08 AM

If the Tithonus error is indicative of the assumption that age begets infirmity, then there should be another reference to indicate the assumption that experience begets boredom. It is true that doing the same job for 100 years would drive a person mad with boredom. However, practically no one is doing the same job that was done 100 years ago; the world has changed, experience has changed, and jobs have changed. It is likely that in a few decades, the jobs that exist today will no longer, and others that we can't begin to imagine will have appeared.

Living to 150, or 1050, is not likely to be boring, since change is constant and coming faster and faster every decade. Ignoring this fact makes it impossible to speculate what living extended lifespans will be like.

There are more wonders coming.

Posted by: Dan at September 6th, 2006 2:02 PM

I discussed boredom a little after this post on the Tithonus Error:

No clever name for the assumption of boredom yet, however, as of a couple of years later. Someone a little better with Greek myth might consider helping me out.

Posted by: Reason at September 6th, 2006 8:32 PM

I personaly, would do anythig to live even one minute longer, I love life and the idea of being able to live up to decades longer seems almost to good to be true. I'm 15 and wonder if this technology will be available to me before I die?

Posted by: Kate at February 13th, 2007 4:00 PM

Scott, in the future you will have much greater possibility of doing whatever you want. Anti-aging science isn't the only area that will develop -- computers and robots will do more and more work, and working will eventually be optional, something to do for fun and not for survival. Of course people still need to make their own life meaningful, that doesn't come automatically. But I'm up to that challenge.

That's how it will be for a period. Then the robots, by then called cylons, will break free and start to attack us. They will wipe out almost the entire human race, but some of us will survive on a ship called Galactica, and we will fight epic battles to a great soundtrack.

Posted by: ND at February 23rd, 2007 11:43 PM

Many parallels and aspects here.

"Squaring the Curve" - having a healthy, youthful life throughout any allotted number of years should be the goal. And it would be easier to sell everyone on this. Alzheimer's among all the ageing Boomers will soon eclipse AIDS in this country if something isn't done soon.

It's prob. a given that Life-Extensionists may have more intellectual curiosity about the world in general and not prone to boredom. Those in academic, research and creative fields, (or other "novelty seeking" behaviors), may also keep a youthful, life-extending zeal until the end. Heck, others will just be happy to be able to play golf for a few more decades.

With aging, health and energy will decline, so frustration can set in and lead to boredom. Upregulated enzymes inbalance hormones and break-down neurotransmitters. No wonder HRT and MAOIs have been among the earliest, acceptable "anti-aging" treatments.

Posted by: ladster at April 10th, 2007 4:55 PM

When someone tells me they are bored, I laugh. What they are really telling you is they want to be entertained. I tell them the world does not owe you engagement, and it is you who are responsible for keeping yourself engaged in the world.

Posted by: Bode Bliss at April 22nd, 2007 11:31 PM

One way to explain this to people in simple words is that the goal is not to add years to the end of your life, but to the middle.

I suspect that half the reason that people have trouble thinking of it that way is simply the way we count chronological age. If technology adds enough decades to your life, then someday you'll be 110. No matter how young you look and feel, nothing can prevent you from turning 110 right on schedule -- and "no one wants to be 110".

Posted by: Unglued at June 10th, 2007 2:34 PM

I agree that boredom is dependent on the person. Someone here said that they wouldn't have the motivation to learn a new trade in a 100 years or so. But they should realize that in a hundred years or so, a person changes, their interests change. He may very well WANT to learn something entirely new, that's part of life, to seek out new experiences.

You know, anti-aging technology is something I'm interested in, something I think the world could benefit from.

But the more I read some of these articles, the more I realize how much of it is based on fear of death rather than joy for life, and that's not good.

For instance, on Longevty Meme, the whole "Death is an Outrage" article somewhat disturbs me by how irrationally death is demonized, feared, treated as an outrage that cannot be tolerated under any circumstances, and acts as if it is somehow feasible to stop it.

The problem is, we will never eliminate death, even if we eliminate age-related death. People will still die, it will just take a few more millennia. People need to accept that.

My problem with going into immortality studies with the view that death itself is an enemy to be reviled is that it could lead to the choice being taken away from people. People could end up being forced to live longer when they've decided it's their time.

I personally, as I am, would love to live to be 600, or even 700 years old, but who knows what I'll think even twenty years from now.

My point is, the attitude these studies are performed under are just as important as the research itself. The last thing I want is a world where the only reason people live longer is because "death is scary" rather than "life is fun".

Posted by: legendarylugi at April 14th, 2009 9:26 AM
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