Recent Negativity on the Prospect of Extended Healthy Life

There has been more discussion of the future of medicine and human longevity in the print media of late. I attribute this to a combination of Google's announcement of their Calico initiative and an ongoing low-key advertising campaign run by Prudential, wherein that company seeks to differentiate itself through displaying an awareness of the potential for large increases in human life span in the years ahead.

There is also a larger than usual fraction of articles that take longevity science and medical development seriously, which is pleasant. Though I'm sure that this is at least partially because it is a lot harder to do otherwise without looking like an idiot these days, given that ever more scientists are willing to talk in public about extending health life spans. It is much easier to find scientific literature, reviews, and interviews with researchers in which they talk favorably about a future of longer lives. Beliefs and opinions change step by step, one increment at a time. That said, while it's harder to dismiss the science out of hand nowadays, there are still plenty of people willing to tell us that it is better for countless millions to die horribly and slowly than for any of those people to survive to risk being bored sometimes, or that old people are too dangerous to be permitted to live any longer:

Why No One Actually Wants to Live Forever

Depression runs high among retirees, and not just because of reduced income - in fact, the baby boomers who have recently retired are living a life of relative luxury compared with those of us still a few decades away. No, the reason they get depressed is because when you're retired, it is easy to feel like you have nothing to live for anymore, no purpose, nothing to get up for, no reason to even get dressed. In a word, they are bored.

What we forget when we focus on extending our lifespan as long as possible is that things make us happy because they are rare, finite, and therefore valuable and precious. Diamonds. Newborns. Laughter. Great first dates. Great third dates. Sunshine. (I live in London. Trust me, sunshine is very rare and very finite.) Make these things available to everyone all the time, and they would lose their glow, become mundane.

The problem with longevity? Old people.

Now consider radical life extension. It means that decision-making power, and economic and political authority, will be vested in a generation that is already obsolete and growing more so. People who find Facebook's and Twitter's popularity incomprehensible and more than slightly spooky will be making employment decisions based on outdated concepts of public and private personas. The young and innovative will be held at bay, prevented from creating new information forms and generating cultural, institutional, and economic breakthroughs. And where death used to clear the memory banks, there I stand ... for 150 years.

The social order of today versus that of the Roman Empire are remarkable for their similarities, not their differences, despite the much greater length of life we expect to enjoy today. Positions change, people change, and leaders are overturned on a timescale that is small compared to our life spans - and that timescale is much the same as it was two thousand years ago. I don't see it changing in the slightest if people lived twice as long as they do now, as the factors leading to social change have very little to do with overall length of life, proceeding as they do on a month-to-month and year-to-year basis, driven by what people want here and now, not ten years or twenty years away.

All in all it is odd that people are so willing to hold up such airy constructs of speculation as those above as viable arguments against efforts to prevent the very concrete cost of aging: the death of tens of millions every year and the ongoing suffering of hundred of millions more. But not every op-ed and article is negative these days; there are signs that more and more people are becoming accustomed to and even supportive of the idea that living longer in good health is the future, and that medical research aimed at increasing human longevity is a good and deserving cause.

Comments

That Slate piece was thoroughly ridiculous. I couldn't bring myself to make time for a second helping with the other article. A few responses:

The two word response "don't retire" seems like a remarkably effective one. Why do people retire? Why does retirement exist? People get old and they can't carry on being productive any more because they're falling part. That's it. Well, if aging is no more, you're just as healthy and ready as someone right out of college, then why decide just not to do anything any more? It's nonsensical. It's like the joke wherein a person goes to the doctor, contorts into a weird position and says "Doctor it hurts when I do this!" to which the doctor responds "Well, don't do that then." I really can't even fathom what the author is thinking. Does he think that if aging were to be abolished people would work at one career like they do today, for the same ballpark duration as today, then retire for hundreds or even thousands of years?

Why did the author not tell his retired golfing acquaintance that there are many people out there who make as much of golf as other people do of a career and that he should go become a professional golfer? The answer is so obvious as to make the question itself seem insensitive, even cruel. In a world without aging that answer is completely inapplicable.

That brings up an important point about death in a post-aging world: fatalities would be exponentially distributed. The exponential distribution has the property of being "memoryless." This means that no matter how much time has elapsed, the expected time until the occurrence of an event (say, death) is the same. Translating to the relevant application, no matter how long you have lived in a post-aging world, you would have the same outlook, the same horizon of expectation as a young adult. It's hard to reason with such a perspective because it's so alien. What it means, however, is that every day might as well be your first. Every day is as good an opportunity to start something new, to embark on a totally different trajectory of life, as any day previous. Place our retired golfer in this set of circumstances and you see that if it is ever reasonable to set out to become a professional golfer, then it is also reasonable for him. He would have just as good a prospect in it, just as much of a future there, as another candidate with the same aspiration.

The author states outright that retirees are bored and he tells us why as a bare assertion, marshalling no evidence to his aid concerning the causes. He does nothing to ascertain the extent to which physical limitations brought about by aging cause this boredom. What about arthritis, incontinence, poor hearing, macular degeneration, sarcopenia, generalized frailty, etc? Might these things limit the range of enriching activities and experiences available to retirees and other elderly persons?

That, however, is hardly the only reason to find his thesis suspect. Some researchers have found that the nadir of happiness in people's lives tends to come before retirement, during working and child-rearing years (see http://www.res.org.uk/SpringboardWebApp/userfiles/res/file/Conference/2011/7/vanlandeghem.doc).

"What we forget when we focus on extending our lifespan as long as possible is that things make us happy because they are rare, finite, and therefore valuable and precious." This is an example of the common phenomenon of sweeping statements about life, the universe and everything that seem profound on a superficial level but are actually complete piffle. Nobody actually thinks like this. I just got done watching some music videos on youtube. Music and dancing put me in high spirits, and the sentiment is not tinged with the regret that digital data can be copied an unlimited number of times or that anyone can visit the link and watch for themselves. Freely available digital data is the exact opposite of rare and valuable, but I can enjoy it all the same and I'm not alone. He goes on to mention diamonds. I love that, because true to form he proves self-refuting. Diamonds are not actually that rare. There are many, many mineral species rarer than diamonds. People like diamonds because they are sparkly (nearly unrivalled dispersion among gem materials but see also demantoid, etc) and being colourless their dispersion gives them a dramatic play of colour that people esteem far in excess of their true rarity. "Ooh, shiny!" is not profound enough for the sort of people who sit around and befuddle themselves and others with too much philosophizing.

Posted by: José at October 26th, 2013 4:38 AM

To be fair I only managed to skim both articles as I was too busy face palming myself into unconsciousness. The 'boredom' argument again?! Really?!

Posted by: Wayne at October 26th, 2013 6:54 AM

I thought both articles were dumb. Slate needs to improve its cast of writers.

Posted by: Abelard Lindsey at October 26th, 2013 9:10 AM

I see this as fear-based, and boils down to mindset, optimism vs. pessimism. I have noticed that as I talk to people about life extension, they either a)want to live forever, or b)don't. No brainer there. The interesting correlation is that those who fall into the "b" category are often generally cynical, lacking true love, or sense of career purpose. From a psychological perspective, a feeling of emptiness does not cause one to want more of the same. Unfortunately, in this case, that more of the same equates to life and its measurable years of living. The optimists who fall into camp "a", are often more fufilled and do not have any desire to ever leave their children, job, hobby, or the love of their life. The only x-factor are the religious fundamentalists or traditionalists who believe that this is the natural order of things, and thus, should not be tampered with.

To draw perspective from personal experience, I lost all sense of purpose during a long-term illness. I lost the love of my life, my job, almost all friends, etc. During that time, I became better in touch with the experience of the aging and the elderly. I was essentially sick, retired, alone, and facing my own mortality. While not an easy road, I found that sense of purpose can be created and re-created should one choose. It is one of the greatest journeys of life. Sure, depression can occur(and often with severity). It is those who choose to slowly remodel themselves and their interests who regain new purpose. It is those who want to be alive. Those who believe in infinte possiblities, maybe more than anything else.

Boredom and depression are not reasons to let humanity waste away and die. They are symptoms of existential problems that need be solved via time, logic, and greater self-understanding. I can only hope more people see things in such a light. Why let our loved ones go? Why time out or commit to suicidal ideology? Life is the basis for our sense of purpose. When we accept death, hopelessness sets in and sense of purpose follows. As I close this long-winded rant, I want to make it clear that I choose life. The triumphs of high school glory day past will not be the apex of my infinite future. Aging will be solved and purpose restored. That maybe prematurely over-optimistic, but I'm going with it.

Posted by: Adam at October 26th, 2013 5:39 PM

The fundamental issue is that most people are hostile to radical life extension - so long as it seems speculative and far-fetched.

Most people in our day and age are not willing to entertain futuristic notions of extended healthy life-span.

This is a corollary of the fact that most people no longer have a vivid conception of the future, in general.

Posted by: Therapsid at October 27th, 2013 1:32 AM

@Therapsid:- Well, these are two articles out of many and most of the recent increased press has been overall positive. I took a brief look at the Salon comment section after writing my own comment here, and I noted that most of the comments disagreed with the article.

I think people's view of the future could use some improvement, but maybe the situation is not all that bad. People just need to stop taking dystopian fiction so seriously. Silly as it sounds, fictional stories seem to have a profound influence on the average person's take on the future. We need a cultural antidote to the "prophesies of science fiction."

Posted by: José at October 27th, 2013 4:12 AM

Actually, if you read the comments, they are largely in favor of longer healthier lives and are in stark disagreement with the authors argument.

Posted by: Mark at October 28th, 2013 3:57 PM

1. Working forever sounds hellish. I want a longer life, but not tied to conservative orthodoxies of today, and I suspect most are responding not against longer lives, but against definitions about quality of life.

2. Automation will make most human labor obsolete near the mid to end of the century period. If we are living longer, we will need something else other than labor or ownership to define living a valuable life. If we are going to have the tech to extend life, automaton will likely happen first since the tech in that area is more developed.

Posted by: Real Reason at October 28th, 2013 10:02 PM

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