Summer 2009

Life and Health

Who Wants to Live Forever?

Martin Coates

After watching the first cut of Highlander, a 1986 movie about battling immortals, the rock group Queen produced a single titled “Who Wants to Live Forever.” One might be tempted to respond by asking “Who wouldn’t?”

That our allotted time on this earth is somewhat fleeting has surely not escaped us, especially as we move farther down our life path. Among the animals and plants with which we share our planet, there is inevitable senescence. Even though as one biologist noted, “aging is an unnatural phenomenon [in that] most animals starve or get eaten, and have no chance to age,” aging and death are part of the human natural order. In recent years, however, a building revolution in the science of gerontology has heralded the possibility of life extension. This is leading some to speculate about just what the limits to human life might be; adding another decade or two or even centuries might be possible.

As our knowledge of the biochemistry of aging increases exponentially, it is no surprise that around the globe scientists are discovering hopeful paths that will provide ways to increase human longevity. Meanwhile, biotechnology companies are seeking to bring new products to market—drugs, cells, tissues, and procedures—which they, too, hope will go some way toward extending life as well as bring a profit.

In every area of medicine, we’ve had amazing, remarkable progress in a very, very short time. . . . The flip side is that mortality in this country continues to bump right up against 100 percent.” 

William Colby, National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, Washington, D.C., “Science Versus the Biological Clock,” 2007 Aspen Health Forum

Is death therefore in terminal decline? While the commercial and media hype concerning such a possibility has dismayed some mainstream scientists, others such as Aubrey de Grey have spearheaded efforts to, as he puts it, “cure the disease of aging.” The Methuselah Foundation chairman and biogerontology researcher is not only chasing the dream of immortality; he expects to catch it.

Noting the potential for life extension in his book How to Live Forever or Die Trying, respected Sunday Times journalist Bryan Appleyard reviews much of the current work and comes to a startling conclusion. “Developments in a number of scientific disciplines,” he writes, “suggest that we may soon be able to increase life expectancies . . . to well over a hundred and, perhaps, to over a thousand.”

Wake-up Call

Humankind suffers from a “global trance” concerning aging, de Grey says, and he wants to wake us up. Aging and its associated pathology are not inevitable, he insists. Once we move beyond our fatalistic view of lifespan, de Grey has faith that science will show us how to reprogram our bodies to maintain our cellular systems in a youthful, self-restorative state virtually forever. He believes there are people alive today who need never grow old.

The modern view of aging is being decoupled from calendar time. Instead, aging appears to be the gradual accumulation of cellular damage caused by the byproducts of the biochemistry of life itself. Like other disease, aging and death are now seen as a progression of events that occur because the body fails to repair ongoing metabolic damage; so although time is an important factor, it is the loss of the repair function that leads to disease. Turning back the hands of cellular time and resetting them permanently in youthful self-repair mode is the greater goal in longevity research. This will require further identification of the links between specific genes, their cell maintenance functions, and other interactions between cells, the body, and the environment.

The high priests of our secular age, the molecular biologists, have begun to address mortality in a way no group, no generation, and no society has ever dreamed of before.”

Stephen S. Hall, Merchants of Immortality (2003)

Our emerging understanding will eventually allow humans to reach what de Grey calls “longevity escape velocity” (LEV). This is not to suggest that science is on the cusp of developing the ultimate silver bullet against aging. Rather, just as transfusions and transplants, pacemakers and statin drugs have extended life today—and sanitation, clean water and food, and an application of the germ theory of disease extended human life in an earlier time—so another new age of medicine is on the horizon. Now, de Grey says, we have come to the point where we can begin to retrain the body to retain its natural rejuvenating processes.

Reaching LEV will not happen immediately, of course. We will not suddenly have ways to challenge Methuselah. By the time we can make 100 the normal life span, new innovations will extend it to 200, and so on, effectively leapfrogging expected life span to, well, no end in sight.

Leap of Faith

S. Jay Olshansky is a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a research associate at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago and at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Bruce A. Carnes is a professor in the Donald W. Reynolds Department of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center. In The Quest for Immortality (2001), these coauthors expressed their concerns about genetic manipulation: “Human beings have developed the technology to usurp nature’s control over our genetic legacy, but this technology could do more harm than good. For example, it may become possible to eliminate genes that are linked to the frailty, disability and disease associated with aging. If these genes also participate in critical developmental pathways early in life, then their elimination could have catastrophic consequences.” (See “Searching for the Fountain of Youth.”)

Such cautionary words still reverberate, but the momentum toward a growing faith in science to provide ultimate healing is building. For instance, researcher Cynthia Kenyon at the Hillblom Center for the Biology of Aging (University of California–San Francisco), gives credence to this optimistic view. Kenyon studies soil worms called nematodes and the genetics of aging. Based on her work, she notes that through “the knowledge that comes from tampering with or manipulating core mechanisms” of these genes and their protein products, we “might be able to slow down the aging process—keep you productive, hopefully creative, employed, off welfare for a longer time—and make you resistant to lots of age-related diseases.” As we learn more, she continues, “we might have a whole world of opportunity for new kinds of drug designs, and a new way of having more control, in a sense, over our life spans and our periods of youthfulness” (“Science Versus the Biological Clock,” 2007 Aspen Health Forum).

Our biological clock continues to tick away. In still unknown interrelationships, the metabolic reactions of the living process operate to create a sort of species-specific shelf-life. A microscopic worm may experience a timeline of merely a few days before it literally grows old and dies; for a tortoise or a large fish, the life calendar seems open-ended. Our clock is set somewhere in between.

It would be shortsighted indeed to disregard the possibility of amazing breakthroughs in medical treatments, but when we consider the complexity of the aging process and of age-related diseases, we have to acknowledge that any single approach offers but limited hope of tackling a multifaceted phenomenon that we do not fully understand at present. Nevertheless, according to de Grey, we have an obligation to future generations to try: “If we vacillate, hesitate, and do not actually develop these therapies, then we are condemning a whole cohort of people who would have been young enough and healthy enough to benefit from those therapies, . . . and I consider that that is immoral.”

A Field of Tall Assumptions

Queen asked, “Who wants to live forever?” From a different perspective, though in a similar vein, 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is said to have observed, “The shortness of life, so often lamented, may be the best thing about it.”

Our initial reaction to this will probably vary depending on a range of factors: our age, socio-economic standing, life experiences, and future expectations and opportunities. But in the face of assertions that continuing breakthroughs mean we’re on the brink of overcoming the limitations of our human frailty, the implications of success should be carefully considered.

The first inherent assumption is that innovative medical techniques would be available for all.

English-born writer John Wyndham (1903–1969) wrote a work of science fiction titled Trouble With Lichen, in which scientists Francis Saxover and Diana Brackley discover a cure for aging extracted from lichen. Unfortunately the supply of the particular species required is limited. This prompts Saxover to ask: “Who are going to be the lucky ones that are allowed to live longer? And why?” Indeed, if new technologies become available, will everyone have the opportunity to benefit from them? Considering the real-life track record, this does not seem likely.

As an example, Olshansky and Carnes cite the introduction of dialysis machines in the 1960s and ’70s. At the time, high cost limited the supply of the machines, but even those who did have access to one could often not afford the treatment. Similarly, an editorial in New Scientist addressed the problem of availability and affordability of cancer treatment drugs. While new drugs may become available for targeting specific mutations that cause an individual patient’s tumors, potentially allowing people to live many more years after diagnosis, these innovations will come at a cost. The editorial asks: “If we are struggling to pay even for today’s cancer drugs, how will we afford this vision?” (“What Price Good Health?” October 25, 2008).

Around the world, health-care authorities run a de facto rationing system based on cost-benefit analysis. Other inequalities also exist. In the United Kingdom much has been made of the so-called post-code lottery: one’s residential area often determines the availability of medical resources. This disparity becomes even greater when we cast our eyes globally. An appeal leaflet from UNICEF makes the point that every day more than 3,400 children in developing nations die from diseases such as whooping cough, polio, diphtheria, measles, tetanus and tuberculosis. In UNICEF’s words, “perhaps the real tragedy is that these deaths are entirely preventable.” But we are without a system that makes the fruits of research available to everyone who could benefit from it, despite the best efforts of governments, charities and philanthropically minded individuals.

Most people who have become immortalists . . . are horrified by the millions of deaths caused by wars or natural disasters. Humanely, we are determined, in the present, to help and, in the future, to do what we can to prevent such things happening again.” 

Bryan Appleyard, How to Live Forever or Die Trying (2007)

Unfortunately we have yet to ensure that everyone on the planet has access even to basic facilities such as fresh water, sufficient and nutritious food, and adequate medical and educational facilities. Can we realistically contemplate a world in which any longevity benefits would be available for all?

More of the Same

In addition to his own concerns about the sustainability and equitable distribution of resources in a scenario of successful life extension, Appleyard questions the long-term motivational factor, love of self. “Cultivation of the self is, alongside relationships, the supreme contemporary preoccupation. But even here there are problems,” he says. “How much cultivation of the self can we take? There will only ever be so many gadgets to buy, so many days we can spend at the gym or beauty parlour.”

Is the world we are creating for ourselves one in which we can continue to derive pleasure and satisfaction, or could it become a hollow experience? Is more of the same what we really want? Might we inevitably concur with Tennyson’s “Tithonus,” in which the title character laments, “And after many a summer dies the swan. / Me only cruel immortality / Consumes. . . .

Even if we were among the few who could look forward to a utopian future, could we rest easy in the company of the necessarily large numbers who would certainly be less fortunate? And who would want to live indefinitely if it meant continued existence as an economic slave, or living under an oppressive and brutal dictatorship or in a war-ravaged and violence-filled country?

Despite the good that leaders and legislators can achieve, attempts at many different systems of government and philosophies over the centuries have failed to create a world we would all wish to live in. As Appleyard points out, the best guide to imagining what the world would become with people living greatly extended lives is simply to look at the world that our human nature has generated in the past. As for the chances of this pattern changing, he says: “It is certainly not clear—it is incoherent—to suggest that humans can know how to change human nature for the better. We are more likely simply to embed our failings and prejudices in the new model.”

It’s All About Faith

Writing in 1896, medical doctor and short-story writer C.A. Stephens noted “a new-born hope” in the world, a hope that within 25 years the best minds would have unlocked the secrets of the cell and paved the way for artificial renovation of the tissues. He asked in Long Life, “Has evolution ceased? On the contrary, it is the writer’s faith that we have as yet seen but the nether limb of evolution. Its grand complement has still to be disclosed in the perfecting of the human organism and the removal of the causes of disease, old-aging, and death; in a word, the achievement of immortality. Immortal life will be won by applied knowledge. Man will save his own soul.”

More than a century has passed, but Stephens’s faith has as yet gone unrewarded. It’s true that at times we stand in awe of stunning scientific and technological advances. Undoubtedly there will be new breakthroughs, making new headlines, giving rise to new hopes. Coupled with this, many people—whether privately, corporately or governmentally—contribute much to make our world a better place.

However, it seems unlikely that man will save his own soul. A dark side to human nature has long created a range of problems with negative or even tragic consequences. There is a limit to our ingenuity and resourcefulness, which means we cannot solve all of the world’s problems by ourselves. To ensure a better world—a world worth living in for all humanity now, let alone for an extended lifespan or for eternity—history suggests we must look beyond our own counsel.

One such counsel, though often brushed aside, records Jesus as saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).

Of course, believing this requires faith, as did Stephens’s belief that man would save his own soul through scientific advances. Faith is also required to believe the Bible’s declaration of a better world to come than any we could create by our own efforts. Indeed, if we are hoping not just for temporary life extension but for immortality in a peaceful world that can sustain life for eternity, then however we look to achieve it, whatever system or entity we put our confidence in, faith is required. In the end, rather than asking “Who wants to live forever?” as we contemplate the possibility of not only extended life but a better life, the real question is “In whom will we put our trust for eternity?”