Being Aged is a Torment No-One Should Be Forced to Bear

Wisdom, experience and the freedom that comes with financial security - with savings and investment over decades - are just a few of the benefits of being old, available for collection and accumulation with the passing years, should you make the modest effort to do so. The old are quite simply better at whatever they have set their mind to; time and effort can buy any form of mastery.

But being physically aged - and the death by a thousand cuts that takes place along the way - is a burden that no-one should be forced to bear. The cuts come slow over the years, and we humans, adaptable as we are, accomodate ourselves to each loss. Your arm acts up; a joint seizes; your immune system fails you; you don't remember quite so well any more; your friends die. Each new discovery of failing biology is a wealth of activities and potential crossed from your list - a change in your life that you did not choose, a closing in of the walls of the possible.

What is the natural response to a life lived within a shrinking set of walls? What good is all the wisdom and experience, what good the structure of a life carved out just the way you like, if shortly thereafter common communicable diseases, shrugged off in youth, will fell you?

The elderly are also less likely to notice they have pneumonia until it's too late. Younger patients will visit their doctor with symptoms like chills, shortness of breath, and chest pain, but elderly sufferers are often asymptomatic. This is because their immune response is already in a somewhat weakened state. For instance, younger people cough up sputum when congested, the body's natural way of clearing out the lungs. (It's unpleasant, but it is also a healthy response.) People tend to lose lung capacity as they age, which makes it harder for them to cough productively. As a result, they might build up a large amount of sputum without becoming symptomatic. Similarly, elderly patients are less likely to notice the symptoms they do have, since they're so used to feeling ill.

When left untreated, pneumonia is deadly; it's considered by the medical community to be as serious as a heart attack. After pus forms in the alveoli, it can spread to the bloodstream, the pleural cavity, or into implanted medical devices, such as a replaced valve or pacemaker.

Even if doctors do spot the disease in an elderly patient, it's often difficult to administer the necessary antibiotics. A younger person might be cured by taking azithromycin for seven to 10 days. But the ability of the kidneys and the liver to metabolize medications changes as we age: Older people are more susceptible to stomach upset and more sensitive to dosage. Many elderly people are also on a cocktail of medications for their other ailments, further vexing prescription.

Living is such a state of frailty is a torment, make no mistake. This is but a fraction of the disability and pain that being aged brings; you become ever more fragile, and chance will soon enough knock you hard enough to end your life. The young would do well to evisage themselves pitched headlong into the degree of disability suffered by the old - but we are not naturally given to look far into the future at what will come, and that is a great pity. By failing to plan ahead, failing to think about unpleasant matters in our future despite the reminders all about, we are failing to work together to ensure that our future is not limited and capped by decades of increasing torment.

We live in an age of possibility and wonder, of rapidly advancing biotechnology and nascent cures for cancer. Scientists understand enough about aging and the roots of degeneration to start on the work that will utterly remove frailty and degeneration from the human experience in decades to come. Progess in science during the years about the turn of the millennium had made clear possibilities that have been absent for the entire past history of humanity - it is both possible and plausible to build repair technologies for the biochemical wear and tear of living beings. We can work to cure aging!

How can we let the torment of being aged to frailty and suffering continue for hundreds of millions, when there is such a clear path forward to a scientific, medical solution?

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Good passionate call to action once again Reason.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people are not the slightest bit interested in transhumanist related stuff. And really, I doubt that'll ever change. The human psyche is in a sense just not constituted for long-term thinking, except for a tiny minority of people
:-( What most people are interested in sex, family and friendship. That's about it.

Another 'hard fact' is that unless one is very bright, very wealthy or very well-connected (and preferably all three) there is actually little one can do to alter the course of events. Anyone saying anything a little bit un usual is just going to be labeled a crack-pot and ridiculed.

A comprehensible long-term solution to the problem of death probably requires AGI.

Posted by: Marc_Geddes at December 29th, 2006 10:56 PM

Counterpoint regarding long-term thinking: people save for retirement, many decades in advance of the need. Prior to modern society, people arranged family structures to the same purpose, again across similar time scales. This all despite the known issues with time preference in humans. So it's possible.

No one person of ordinary means can do much. But they can do a little to move all humanity towards a goal, and also persuade more than one other person - on average - to make the same contribution of donation and persuasion. How else does anything meaningful get done?

Posted by: Reason at December 29th, 2006 11:39 PM

Sex, family, and friendship? Well, of course! We're primates, after all. But just so, most people would be all the more enthused about being able to keep those things permanently, if they believed it might be possible.

Many of the people in the best (financial) position to contribute are, if not elderly, not exactly spring chickens. If they don't think much about the decrepitude of old age, it's not because that fate seems unimaginably distant, but rather because it falls into the category of things they can't do anything about.

Saving for retirement is a good counterexample. People do invest in trying to mitigate the negatives of old age in those areas where they believe it is possible to do so. The key is convincing them that physical decay may be one of those areas.

It's long been a cliché that "you can't take it with you". But "you can stay here with it", if backed by evidence, sounds pretty tempting.

Posted by: Infidel753 at December 30th, 2006 5:42 AM

"What most people are interested in sex, family and friendship."

Family and friends may be around for a long time, but ability and will to have sex fades most of life. Most also have to accept sleeping with less and less attractive people. Many conveniently adopt the attitude that "looks doesn't matter" as they grow older. Yeah, right. (Not that it's everything, but it sure as hell is something.)

Posted by: ND at January 2nd, 2007 3:52 PM

Good points about long-term thinking, yes humans are capable of it. What I should have made clear was my point that I don't think humans
have the motivational system to seriously seek immortality. I think the motivational systems of us budding immortals (and indeed most transhumanists) are highly abnormal relative to the general population. Like I said people ain't interested in immortality. You could 'extrapolate human volition' as much as you want. They still wouldn't be interested. Really.

Wesley Smith points out on his blog (coorectly I think) that the Raelians are so successful because they offer a lot of free sex:

"I mentioned the Raelians because you pointed out that both transhumanism and that cult seek a material immortality through science. You wondered why they were so successful in recruiting adherents. I just pointed out that the Raelians offer a lot of sex to those who join them."

You know, he's right. I recently watched this notorious YouTube video of Kylie Minogue in her knickers simulating sex in a riding machine and I had more fun watching that 1 minutes 34 clip than I ever had in 3 years of incredibly boring conversations on transhumanist-lists. Here's the clip by the way:

And indeed, the WTA has only a few hundred paying members, but the Minogue sex clip is one of the 'most viewed' (watched by millions). That tells you how the human motivational system really works.

I've kinda realized that if I'm to do something about death I'm largely 'on my own' in this thing. If you're gonna do something 'transhumanist-ish' do it because you think it's right. But don't expect any one to help or even to care. Just my personal view of course.

Posted by: Marc_Geddes at January 3rd, 2007 9:17 PM

Hmmm. I think what you're really looking at here is the difference between immediate and deferred gratification. Having or watching sex is fun in and of itself. Wrestling with the details of telomere extension is something with a very indirect connection to a desirable result far down the road. It's like going in at 8:00 AM every day to do a dull or unpleasant job. People still do it because they know they'll get a paycheck eventually, but with markedly less enthusiasm than they would set off for a no-holds-barred encounter with Ms. Minogue.

Now imagine how little enthusiasm you'd have for the dull job if you weren't even really convinced the paycheck would materialize. That's our current situation.

People will fight an immediate threat of death, when they believe they have a credible chance of survival if they do fight. They do want to live.

Another point is that most people can't do anything that will influence the outcome, so why should they try? If I were rich I'd give money to anti-aging research, but I'm not. What can I do to influence whether SENS arrives or not, and how fast? Nothing, except perhaps just a tiny bit, by talking about it and taking opportunities to get people interested in the subject. Which I do. And which you also do, more effectively, via this site.

Posted by: Infidel753 at January 4th, 2007 5:40 AM
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