by Colin Howe
I recently attended a funeral for my Spanish mother-in-law, who passed away at the ripe old age of 87. The whole experience led me to do a bit of soul-searching and reflect on the nature of life and its inseparable companion, death. It was actually the words of the priest at the service that prompted me to pick up my pen. To console us, he said that while those who pass away are no longer with us on Earth, they have now become ‘citizens of the heavens’.
Something about the way he described it felt inherently depressing. When I hear the word ‘citizens’ it makes me think of taxes, mortgages, responsibilities and other such nasty things you don’t really want to have chasing you into the grave (or beyond it, for that matter). So hang on – we don’t actually get to die then? What happened to ‘rest in peace’??? As a child I was always fascinated by Tolkien’s elves, which could supposedly only die of grief (well, and being torn apart by dragons and impaled by orc swords). But what would it really be like if we kept on living?
The whole idea could easily be dismissed as fanciful. However, certain developments have been hitting the headlines lately relating to gerontology (the study of the social, psychological, cognitive, and biological aspects of ageing) which are challenging the way we view our mortality. Have we reached our maximum lifespan? Could we conceivably live forever? And is it in our best interests as a species to do so? Here’s a brief look at our changing relationship with old age, the lengths we go to in our efforts to cheat death and what might happen if we actually succeed in our endeavours.
Humanity hits its shelf life
Human life expectancy has progressively risen since the 19th century as a result of improved living standards, medical breakthroughs and reductions in infant mortality. The advances of the modern era have democratized old age, and the majority of the world’s population is now less likely to fall victim to malnutrition or disease; in the past this was a privilege enjoyed by a select few. However, the figures can be misleading. We have managed to increase average life expectancy, but without fundamentally altering our biological make-up. Healthy living can only do so much; has humanity finally reached its maximum shelf life?
Recent evidence would seem to suggest it has. This year, a team headed by Jan Vijg from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City carried out a study based on demographic figures taken from the Human Mortality Database and the International Database on Longevity. They concluded that as a species we appear to have hit a ‘survival plateau’ at around 99 years in the 1980s, with only very minor increases since that time. Nonetheless, the researchers themselves acknowledge that their study does not take into account potential future medical advances.
One step ahead of death
Championing the other side of the argument are people like Aubrey de Grey. One of the world’s leading gerontologists, de Grey recently offered an interview in the El Pais newspaper in which he explains how he thinks science could push the age barrier further or even eliminate it altogether. “Ageing is what happens to any machine that has parts, like a car or an aircraft. The human body is a machine, but a very complex one, which means fixing it is a complex process, but not an impossible one,” says de Grey.
He proposes an approach whereby ‘repairs’ are made to the body to redress the accumulated damage it has suffered. This damage is classified into seven categories to aid in identifying generic therapies. For example, evolution has found ways of excreting the waste that cells generate as a by-product of their functioning, but only when it is produced in large quantities. Small amounts of waste generated gradually over time tend to accumulate in the cell, causing ageing. The solution consists of finding agents – normally bacteria – that are capable of breaking this waste down and thereby slowing the ageing process.
While de Grey does not envisage miracle cures being developed in the short-term that enable us to live forever, he does expect current advances to give middle-aged people an additional 30 years of healthy life. By the time those people reach the end of their lives, it is highly likely that technology will have found solutions to the ‘damage’ they will have accumulated by then, enabling them to further extend their lifespan. In this way, we could progressively stay one step ahead of death and theoretically keep on living as long as science finds a way to keep perpetuating our existence.
Cryonics: putting illness on ice
Another way we’ve come up with to cheat death is the process of cryonics – the freezing, normally in liquid nitrogen, of humans who have been legally declared dead. While it may seem the stuff of sci-fi movies, people have actually really done this, mostly sufferers of as yet incurable diseases who have been placed in suspended animation in the hope that they can be revived in the future and cured of their respective ills. The first person to undergo this treatment in January 1967 was Dr James Bedford, a psychology professor from the University of California. Since then, he and hundreds of others have had their entire bodies, their heads or simply their brains put on ice in one of the four facilities that currently offer this service around the world. The practice is not without its detractors and it has one glaring downside: nobody has actually ever been successfully revived, making it impossible to know whether the process works.
Falling into the Malthusian trap
However we do it, we also need to think about the consequences of increasing life expectancy. What would happen if everyone stopped dying? As early as 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus proposed the first systematic theory of population dynamics, asserting that human population growth would eventually outpace food production, inevitably leading to famine, disease or war.
Technological developments have essentially disproved Malthus’s theory, but there can be no doubt that the world’s population is ballooning. According to a recent report by researchers of the University of Washington, there is an 80 percent probability that the global population, which now stands at 7.2 billion, will increase to between 9.6 and 12.3 billion by the end of this century. The world’s resources are also being depleted at an alarming rate, and this effect would obviously be further exacerbated if people stopped dying. So is it really in our interests as a species to live longer?
de Grey thinks that it is: “The original argument was that with everyone riding around on horses, as cities grew they would eventually be buried in horse manure. But technology managed to resolve that problem. We’ll soon be in a position to generate less waste, and there’ll be more space on the planet for more people who contaminate less.”
Advances in agriculture have also ensured that, for now at least, food production has been able to keep pace with the demand. Developments such as artificial meat could free up millions of hectares of pasture, which could then be put to other more productive uses. If we can keep innovating to accommodate the needs of an ever-growing population, there seems no reason why we shouldn’t try to develop technologies and procedures that allow us to live longer, healthier lives.
However, if we do end up exhausting our planet’s resources in the future, we may very well need to launch ourselves into space in search of a new one and become true ‘citizens of the heavens’. If this does happen, either we make some serious leaps and bounds in the longevity department or perhaps cryonics might not be such a bad idea after all. Based on ion-engine technology as used on NASA’s Deep Space 1 mission, we can currently achieve a maximum velocity of around 56,000 km/h for spacecraft propulsion. On this basis, it would take over 81,000 years to traverse the 4.24 light years between Earth and its nearest star, Proxima Centauri, while the search for life-bearing planets would undoubtedly take us even further afield.
Finding the middle ground
Future scientific advances could potentially allow continual increases in human life expectancy. If at some time in the future death by natural causes really does become a thing of the past, some hard decisions will inevitably have to be made to curtail birth rates or we will end up squeezing our planet dry. However, de Grey argues that it is not up to us to make those decisions; we need to develop this technology now to allow future generations to fully exploit it and let them choose whether or not they should have children, for example. Who knows, perhaps by then we’ll have solved the problem of interstellar travel and overpopulation will no longer be an issue. What seems clear is that we need to strike a balance between enabling people to live longer and ensuring all those people have somewhere to live their lives, whether as citizens of the Earth or of the heavens. New technologies will play a vital role in achieving both these goals.
A final thought – it’s all very well to extend people’s life expectancy, but what would we do with all that extra time? Apparently ‘The Lord of the Rings’ has only been translated into 65 languages; perhaps I could take care of translating it into all the other 6,435-odd languages in the world? At the end of the day, I’m all for eternal life as long as that means a) ticking off all the amazing places/books/films/series on my bucket list; and b) living to see my mortgage get paid off.
I’m sure the elves would agree with me.