Fear of an Extended Old Age of Frailty and Decrepitude

It remains the case that most people think of extended lives in terms of an extended old age, meaning ever more and greater pain, suffering, frailty, and illness. We call this the Tithonus Error, after the mythic figure who obtained the cursed form of immortality, living forever but continuing to suffer the ever worsening consequences of degenerative aging. This is one of any number of cautionary tales that illustrate the merits of carefully removing loopholes from requests made to gods, demons, and sundry other elementals. These days I don't think we're doing ourselves any favors by trying to propagate this idea under the name of the Tithonus Error, however. It's not one of the few immediately recognizable myths, and so doesn't do well as a pithy shorthand that reaches out to grab people.

Whatever you want to call this business of extended degenerative aging, however, it is simply not going to happen in the real world, and no reputable scientist in the aging research community is suggesting that it will happen. All of the various presently ongoing efforts to extend life will (if successful) extend healthy life spans, reducing illness and providing more years of health and youthful vigor. All of the life extension that has occurred as a largely unintentional side effect of broad medical progress in the past century or two has also been of this form: more youth and less age-related suffering. Exactly this - more youth and less age-related suffering - has always been the goal and the most plausible outcome: aging is a matter of accumulated damage within and around cells, and anything that the research community does to reduce the current load of damage will extend the period in which you are comparatively healthy and youthful.

Yet the world at large doesn't seem to listen to the researchers who have explained this, year in and year out, since the late 1990s. In the popular imagination life extension is still locked to the idea of gaining only decades of additional tottering frailty - not an attractive proposition at all. Arguably this misconception is the greatest obstacle to obtaining the necessary public support for truly large-scale research projects of the sort needed to build rejuvenation biotechnology over the next few decades. All it will take to implement working prototype therapies described in the SENS plan for rejuvenation is a few billion dollars, a hundred million a year over that time frame - but this requires a level of awareness and support to equal that presently existing for major named diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and the like.

That I can point to a recent survey by one of the big public opinion organizations on the topic of radical life extension, and to discussion of the survey through the mainstream media, is in and of itself a sign of progress. This certainly wouldn't have happened ten years ago. The ideas have spread far enough, and the science and support within the scientific community grown to the point at which it cannot be completely ignored. However the survey results show that there remains a great deal to do in order to create a world in which the average fellow in the street sees degenerative aging as just another of the big threatening diseases, something that can and should be fought with medical science.

One commentary suggests that the fear of extended decrepitude is exactly the root of ambivalence towards medical research aimed at extending human life:

Americans don't want to extend their declining years. But what if you could stay young?

Would you like to live forever? Probably not. According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, most Americans don't want to stick around much longer than current life expectancy. Sixty percent don't want to live past 90. Thirty percent don't want to live past 80. People who make lots of money don't want longer lives any more than the rest of us do. Nor do people who think there's no afterlife. What's driving our misgivings? Much of it is uncertainty about what kind of lives we'd be living. Would medical progress keep us feeling young? Or would it only stretch out our declining years?

Why so much resistance? One likely reason is dread about the nature of extended life. Pew's survey explicitly postulated treatments that "slow the aging process." But when you're being asked about living to 120 years or beyond, it's hard not to picture spending much of that time feeling withered, afflicted, and debilitated. Although the survey didn't ask about this assumption directly, several findings are consistent with it.

1. The more you associate medical treatment with higher quality of life, the more you favor life extension.
2. The more you associate longevity with productivity, the more you favor life extension.
3. The more you see extended life as a resource burden, the more you oppose it.
4. The more you see old folks as a problem, the more you oppose life extension.
5. The older you are, the less likely you are to favor life extension.
6. The less you're looking forward to the next decade, the less you favor life extension.
7. People don't want to live past the age at which severe diseases and disabilities are expected.

If resistance to life extension is based on the assumption that the extra years would be frail and painful, look out. That resistance will dissolve in the face of contrary evidence. If modern medicine learns how to slow aging, making the average 90-year-old feel as good as a 70-year-old feels today, people will recalibrate.

As the author points out, however, changes of this nature take time - probably more time than we have to wait before the absolute last minute at which we could successfully kick-start the major research programs needed to fully realize SENS or equivalent means of human rejuvenation, technologies capable of rescuing the elderly from frailty, ill-health, and impending death. This is why advocacy and the grind of fundraising and education are so very important. Success in raising more funding for SENS will mean the difference between life and death for a large fraction of those alive today.

Comments

The results of the poll are not disappointing,just realistic.

People see the elderly dying after chronic illnesses & costly diseases & they don't want that for themselves.

If a realistic alternative is offered,to live actively & disease -free to...XXX age,then ..90% of the Americans will say..YES...

Posted by: harrysmatic at August 14th, 2013 7:50 AM

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