Immortality, Moment by Moment

Article excerpt


This is the fourth part in a series of editorials on the challenges raised by the October report of the President's Council on Bioethics.

If they were given just one wish this holiday season, few people would ask to become old. After all, aging brings infirmities, the loss of loved ones and the certainty of one's own mortality.

The most benevolent byproduct of biotechnology could be its ability to extend human lives to great length - perhaps indefinitely. Longer lifespans would provide individuals the opportunity to grow more, to experience more and to become more. Greater learning coupled to greater life experience might produce Solomonic wisdom, while longer years of labor added to additional earning opportunities could produce fantastic wealth.

Such opportunities to slow - or stop - the clock should probably be embraced. However, as "Beyond Therapy" points out, they will have great but uncertain effects on society and also could carry hidden costs to individuals.

Lifespans can be extended in three different ways. The first is increasing the length of the average life by reducing mortality among infants and the middle aged. Over the last decade, those techniques have increased life expectancy at birth in Western nations by decades. Other scientists are attempting to extend the life of the elderly and undo the damage done by aging by doing research on stem cells and memory-enhancement techniques. Direct retardation of aging - through preventing damage done to cellular components and turning off genes responsible for cell death - has the greatest potential to extend lifespans.

The mechanisms that drive aging are not yet well understood, but someday scientists are likely discover a way to slow, or even stop, the aging process. …