I rarely write obituaries, because once you start where do you stop? Perhaps a hundred and fifty thousand lives are lost every day, most due to aging and its consequences, and it isn't just the few people you happened to exchange emails with who are worthy of notice. Yet monuments are at root a selfish undertaking on behalf of the living, and we can easily bury ourselves in mourning and symbolism. Ultimately one has to ask: is this an initiative about death or is this an initiative about life? The world has too many thinly disguised death cults. Cruelly, even after yet another individual in one's personal circle of vision succumbs to the frailty of age all of our lives go on as before. We're still here with the same old to-do list in front of us - or at least we will be until we are not. But that is rather the point: we want to eliminate this part of the human condition, build the medical technologies to repair the breakages that cause aging and thus prevent all of its attendant suffering and death.
I've long admired the oldest people in this community. They participate with no hope at all of benefiting personally from the technologies they support: that is true altruism. It will be, I'd think, twenty years under even the best of circumstances before comparatively crude first generation rejuvenation treatments as envisaged in the SENS proposals become available. If you are in later life it is vanishingly unlikely that you will survive for long enough to benefit meaningfully from present research. Yet that research must happen. Someone must be first to benefit, and someone must be last to miss out.
So we get to this news from the Gerontology Research Group (GRG), providing notice of the death of their founder and organizer in chief Stephen Coles, a researcher and advocate for longevity science. This had been expected, I think, given the details of his ongoing public battle with cancer. He took full advantage of having a rough timeline at the end to ensure a good cryopreservation:
Dr. Stephen Coles passed away in Scottsdale on December 3 of complications of pancreatic cancer and was cryopreserved. He was 73. Scottsdale is where Alcor is, and Steve had traveled there last week to be close to the cryonics foundation.
He tracked the oldest people in the world for over 20 years, and published the most recent five years of his research in the journal PLoS ONE. Dr. Coles performed autopsies on 12 "supercentenarians," people who are 110 years old or older, more than any other pathologist, and determined TTR Amyloidosis as a predominant cause of death.
There is an obituary in the LA Times. For as long as I've been involved in advocacy, Coles has networked with fellow researchers and gathered data on late age survival. With his connections as a hub the GRG mailing list became a cosmopolitan watering hole at which gerontologists, other researchers, and advocates with many varied views on aging and medicine debated points and rubbed shoulders. In recent years Coles' own work helped to shape the SENS Research Foundation strategy of funding potential treatments for TTR amyloidosis, a condition in which misfolded transthyretin builds up in solid masses to clog blood vessels and organs. This condition may be a true final limiting factor on human life span, killing those who survive everything else. Or at least it will be until therapies exist, and the development of those therapies is presently underway - though, as always in matters related to aging, with too little funding for truly rapid progress.
Cryonics is the sensible choice for anyone finding themselves in Coles' position. It is the only presently available shot at making death a hiatus rather than oblivion, and it is one slice of the grand self-destructive tragedy of the modern human condition that next to nobody chooses this path. Preservation of the fine structure of the brain means preservation of the mind, and given continued storage a patient can wait for as long as needed for future molecular nanotechnologies capable of restoring a cryopreserved individual. That isn't impossible, just very hard. But instead all those lives, all those individuals, are lost.
To change this state of affairs many more respected people at the hub of their own networks of influence must make a very public choice to be cryopreserved. This is really no different than the sort of effective advocacy needed to change the present public disinterest in living longer lives through rejuvenation therapies. If we want to see a world without frailty and disease in aging then more people have to speak out and act accordingly: we don't lack the ability to get to this goal, but rather lack the widespread will to do the job. Each of us can only be the one person in this parade, of course, but congratulations and thanks should pass to Coles for choosing to be that one on both fronts.
And that must stand in place for the numerous obituaries and mentions I could have written in recent years. As the community grows there are ever more older members and so more people vanishing over time from the mailing lists and blogs. But what can you do? Fifty years ago you could do nothing but wish. Today, however, you can make a material difference: support the research, support the organizations, help to speed our progress towards the day on which people stop suffering and dying of old age.