Academic journal article Generations

Who's Afraid of Life Extension?

Academic journal article Generations

Who's Afraid of Life Extension?

Article excerpt

A gerontologist's inner dialogue as advocate and opponent of life-extension technology.

When I began to prepare to write this article, I was clear and confident about my direction. Anti-aging technologies, I was sure, are a snare and a delusion-an appeal to vanity, to narcissism and denial of reality. Instead of techno-utopian delusions, I would argue for a more "ecological" vision of life where youth and age are both accepted as part of the natural life cycle. It is a line of thought I have held for many years, and what is more comfortable than familiar opinions?

But the more I thought about my skepticism and hostility to life-extension technology, the more uneasy I became. Gradually, as I reflected on my uneasiness, I found it more and more difficult to rationalize my strong rejection of life extension. This uneasiness came to a head when I was attending a high school reunion, after nearly forty years, and a classmate casually remarked that we didn't look much like our parents looked at the same age: That is, we didn't look as old. Glancing around the room, I realized it was true. I also realized that I was not unhappy about that fact: I would prefer youth, or at least indefinite middle age, instead of celebrating the condition of age to which I had devoted the bulk of my professional life in gerontology.

So there it is. The anti-- aging response was in me, undeniably. But I was uncomfortable with that response, actually of two minds about it. Emotionally, I liked the idea of looking young, being young. Intellectually, as a gerontologist, I knew all the reasons why I was opposed to anti-aging medicine. Out of my own ambivalence, then, came an inner dialogue between advocates and opponents of life-extension technology. What follows is a summary of that ongoing dialogue, followed by observations about why I believe anti-aging medicine and life-extension technology increasingly constitute an ideological crisis for mainstream gerontology today, a crisis likely to intensify throughout the twenty-- first century as new techniques for longevity increasingly become available.

In order to be clear about what is at stake in the dialogue that follows, let me first distinguish between two forms of life extension:

1. "Weak" life extension means increased average life expectancy-say, from 76 to 100, combined with compressed morbidity, with maximum lifespan remaining unchanged (at around 120 years).

2. "Strong" life extension means dramatically increased life expectancy-say, from 76 to200 years, with continued compression of morbidity, and maximum lifespan rising to something like 24o years.

With this distinction in mind, consider the following scenarios for the future:

Weak life extension: Scenario for the year 2045. Today the richest man in the world is not Bill Gates, but Tom Tower, who founded Senex Corporation in 2010. With the development of Geromatrix, a telomere-enhancing drug, Dr. Thomas Tower effectively patented the Fountain of Youth. Soon afterward discoveries flowing from the Human Genome Project resulted in progressive eradication of cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's. Normal retirement age has now been raised from 67 to 80. Today there are over two million centenarians in America, and people spend decades attending Elderhostel classes in their retirement. Still, no one has yet lived beyond age 128, when cellular reserve capacity suffers a mysterious terminal drop. Research continues on how to extend maximum human lifespan still further, but the impact of our new "longevity society" has already been dramatic.

Strong life extension: Scenarui for the year 2075. The world has changed dramatically in the past 75 years. Some of the oldest baby boomers are still alive, but they will soon the off. Not so their children and grandchildren born after the turn of the twenty-first century. In their childhood these children got the benefit of telomeric induction therapy, which delays puberty until age 25 and doubles normal life expectancy and maximum lifespan. …

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