The belief that extending life through new medical science will lead to people who spend their additional years becoming ever more decrepit and frail is widespread and hard to shake. Scientists have told the public over and again that this is not going to be the outcome: any successful treatment for the causes of aging will produce patients who are younger than their years. Extending life will inevitably mean extending youthful, healthy life, because aging is just an accumulation of damage. The medical conditions that we call age-related diseases are just late manifestations of very high levels of damage. The only sound way to extend life is through reduction or repair of this damage, and that extends the period of health, pushing back the onset of medical conditions and deterioration.
But it doesn't seem to matter how many times this is repeated by members of the research community. People just aren't listening. The article quoted below is a microcosm of this larger picture: an author who hears what is said about aging, medicine, and healthy life, and cruises right on past to conclude with the same fear of extended years of frailty that he started with:
The idea of defeating old age and even death has been with us for a long time. In Greek mythology, there was a handsome young fellow called Tithonius who was in love with Eos, the Goddess of Dawn. Aware that he was getting older while she remained young and beautiful forever, he asked her to make him immortal. She couldn't do it herself but passed on the request to Zeus, who obligingly granted it. Unfortunately, Tithonius had asked only for immortality, not for eternal youth. So he became a horrible-looking old man, suffering aches and pains and unable to die. Eos took pity on him and turned him into a grasshopper, presumably an immortal one. Motto: be careful of what you ask from the gods.
The possibility of extending life far beyond what is now its usual term is apparently becoming a reality. Of course, thanks to medical advances, this has been happening for some time. Most of us can already expect to live quite a bit beyond the Bible's allotted span of 70 years. But the science is marching quickly. Aubrey de Grey, co-founder of SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), believes that we can eliminate the symptoms of ageing, and live for as long as 1,000 years. Ninety per cent of us apparently die of what is nothing more than old age - bits wearing out and all that - and this, he says, is unnecessary. A thousand years may seem a touch extravagant, but we are already accustomed to being fitted with spare parts that help to keep us going. Then that great killer, cancer, is usually, though not always, a disease of old age, and, if/when a cure is found, then that will be another cause of death that has been abolished.
Now, most of us are quite in favour of staying alive, so long as our bodies and minds keep functioning with reasonable efficiency. For many the real fear is dementia, and most of the over-70s I know will say that if that happens and the mind crumbles, they hope that somebody will be kind enough to put a pillow over their face and press down hard. Unfortunately, for obvious and respectable reasons, few are ready to oblige. Nevertheless, many will agree with me that it's preferable to go to the grave than to go nuts.
However, assuming that the life-extension scientists can also find ways of fending off dementia, how do we feel, individually and as a society, about the prolongation of life? Are we happy about the prospect of so lop-sided a society? Aubrey de Grey, with the enthusiasm of a pioneer, says he hopes to make it possible for people of 90 to wake up feeling as ready to go as they did when they were 30, and with no greater chance of not waking up the next day as they had 60 years previously. However, he admits that this transformation will require "hi-tech intervention", which is what he says he is working on.
It's quite possible that the life-extended might be as useless and miserable as Swift's Strulbrugs. Why prolong life, some sage once asked, save to prolong pleasure? Why indeed? Can the life-extension zealots assure us of continuing pleasure? I don't know. Nobody knows. But evidently the prospect of life-extension is real. We had better start thinking about it. Will it make for individual happiness and social contentment? If not, shouldn't we oldies get ready to shuffle off the mortal coil? One thing is sure: few of us want to end up like Tithonius, condemned to live in decrepitude and misery. Worse than Tithonius indeed, there being no kindly former lover and goddess on hand to change us into a grasshopper.