Front and center, the primary plan for longevity for people in middle age and younger today is to help push through enough of the right medical research. Your body is aging, accumulating damage, but methods of repairing that damage are slowly edging their way towards clinical application. Once in the clinic they will slowly become better. At some point the improvement in repair methodologies will add healthy life expectancy for older people faster than a year with every passing chronological year. Everyone with access to the latest stable medical technology at that point will have beaten the curve: they will no longer suffer and die due to aging. The question is where that point occurs in your life span, indeed whether it occurs in your life span, and that is where activism and funding comes in. You can't make yourself younger (yet), but you can help to speed up the development process: it is certainly moving at far below optimal speed at the present time.
That is the primary plan, and for every primary plan there must be a backup plan. Never bet on just one horse. The backup plan for evading the end that comes with death by aging is cryonics: low-temperature preservation of the fine structure of the brain on clinical death. Cryopreservation organizations will maintain the data of your mind in its physical form for the decades it will take for restoration to active life to become a viable possibility. That will, at minimum, require near complete control over cellular biochemistry and regeneration, as well as a mature molecular nanotechnology industry capable of repairing broken cell structures, removing cryoprotectant from tissues, and similar tasks. None of these goals are impossible or unforeseen, it is just that the necessary technologies don't exist today. Preserved individuals have all the time in the world to wait, of course.
A backup plan is never as good as the primary plan. That is why it is the backup plan. In order to be cryopreserved you have to undergo a very unpleasant set of experiences; you have to age and you have to die, and do so naturally with little help, since our backwards legal systems don't allow for assisted euthanasia in a constructive way that can mesh with cryonics protocols and organizational procedures. Further, in comparison to remaining alive and healthy thanks to the development of working rejuvenation treatments, cryonics will for a long time to come be a leap into the dark with an unknown chance at ultimate success. It is still infinitely better than any of the other possible choices open to the billions who will die too soon to benefit from near future rejuvenation therapies.
Strangely, after four decades of organized operation cryonics remains a tiny, niche, non-profit industry. This is the case for reasons that remain unclear and much debated. Cryopreservation is certainly a far better option than the many strange things people choose to have happen to their bodies following clinical death, usually for no better reason than everyone else does it. Is it little more than the fact that you have to prepare some time in advance to make it cost-effective via life insurance? The reluctance to embrace cryopreservation over the grave and oblivion may have some of the same roots as the reluctance to support research into the treatment of aging as a medical condition and extension of healthy life spans. At root all it would really require for cryonics to grow to become a dynamic and competitive industry is for more people to sign up and express interest.
In recent years the popular press have transitioned from ridicule to balanced respect on the topic of cryonics, and the level of attention has increased. I think at least some of this has to do with growing interest in treating aging as a medical condition, though the relationship may be indirect: people who influence opinions tend to support both life extension and cryonics research and development. In the past decade we've seen a growing acceptance of the transhumanist ideals for longevity and the defeat of death that were first discussed realistically and robustly over the course of the 1960s to the 1980s. Many more people are now on the inside of what was once a small intellectual circle, and visionary thinking from that time is now taken as a foregone conclusion for technological development. That said, journalists are ever journalists and still largely miss the very important difference between freezing, which is something that cryopreservation seeks to avoid, and vitrification, which is the goal of modern procedures. Freezing produces ice crystals which are highly damaging to tissues, whereas vitrification minimizes that outcome.
Call the headquarters of Alcor in Scottsdale, Arizona, and you are greeted by a recorded message. "If you would like to report the death or near-death of an Alcor member," says a chirpy midwestern voice, "please press two." The Alcor Life Extension Foundation - to give it its full title - has an unexceptional grey concrete exterior that resembles a regional bank branch. Inside, however, are the bodies or brains of 138 dead people, stored in vats of liquid nitrogen in the hope that, at some point in the future, advances made in science will be capable of bringing them back to life.
This is cryonics - the preservation of animals and humans at extremely low temperatures. And in America, business is booming. Last month, Alcor took receipt of its 138th patient: Du Hong, a Chinese science-fiction writer who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 61 and whose family contacted Alcor shortly before her death to have her brain preserved. Brain-freezing starts at $100,000 and is cheaper than the full-body option, which costs more than twice that amount. Alcor, which describes itself as a not-for-profit organisation, insists that all fees go directly back into running costs.
"I believe that my identity is stored inside my physical brain," says Carrie Wong, president of the Lifespan Society of British Columbia, an advocacy group that works to promote and protect access to cryonic preservation. "So if I can somehow preserve that, maybe at a future time technology and medical science will advance to such a point that it may be possible to repair the damage of freezing me in the first place and also what killed me back then," says the 27-year-old, who concedes such a feat could be hundreds of years in the future. "It's not possible now, but nobody can really argue it's not possible in the future because that's arguing about what future technology is capable of."
The Cryonics Institute, a non-profit organization founded in 1976 by Robert Ettinger, operates a preservation facility near Detroit, where about 100 pets and 135 humans are suspended in tanks called cryostats. "The actual cryostats are just giant thermos bottles with liquid nitrogen, there's no electricity to fail," says president Dennis Kowalski, a 47-year-old Milwaukee firefighter and paramedic who became interested in cryonics in his 20s.
About 1,250 people, including a number of Canadians, are signed up for CI's service. Membership costs US$28,000, which is typically paid for through life-insurance policies. While acknowledging that he and others who intend to be frozen are often "looked at as a bunch of kooks," Kowalski views cryonics as being like a clinical experiment - and one that beats the alternative. "I'll be the first to admit it may not work. And everyone who's signed up should understand cryonics may not work and there are no guarantees."