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“I think the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already,” Aubrey de Grey, University of Cambridge gerontologist and co-founder of the California-based Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Research Foundation, declared over a decade ago. While de Grey must be counted among the more optimistic prognosticators of anti-aging research, many others are hard at work at figuring out how to rejuvenate bodies and also slow down the aging process.
For example, physician Nir Barzilai of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York is pressing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve a trial of the diabetes drug metformin as an anti-aging treatment. There is already good evidence that the drug prolongs healthy life and lifespan in mice. Other researchers have discovered that treating old mice with the blood of young mice dramatically rejuvenates their brains, muscles and hearts. They are rushing now to isolate the compounds that generate this revitalizing effect.
Enabling people to live for centuries or more would be the biggest positive upheaval in all of human history. Imagine what it would be like to have the physical energy and mental acuity of age 25 for a millennium or more. And as the centuries pass, technological progress will endow the perpetually youthful with ever-greater physical and intellectual capacities such that they would seem to have become gods in comparison to humanity’s current lot. Let’s explore some of the far-reaching psychological, social, economic and political changes that the advent of perpetual youth would spark.
Consider that the oldest story we have is the 4,000 year-old Gilgamesh Epic from ancient Ur, in which the half-god king Gilgamesh fails in his search for the secret to eternal life. The Epic ends with the doleful insight that death is not final oblivion, only if one founds cities. Then posterity will preserve at least your memory. In fact, the names of most people are lost to living memory within four generations. Off the top of your head, can you name all of your great-grandparents? How about your great-great-grandparents?
Many philosophers and psychologists believe that human history is chiefly motivated by the struggle to quell the pervasive fear of death. Modern terror-management theorists explain that people seek to stave off their fears of death by embracing religious creeds, strongly identifying with their own group and culture and even loving more deeply and yearning for children. In other words, people not only build cities as a way to counter their fear of oblivion but also cathedrals, mosques and temples where the gods, at least, are asked to remember us. But what if death were no longer mandatory, but optional?
How would the perpetually youthful arrange their lives once they have been liberated from the more-or-less inevitable arc of birth, childhood, schooling, career, marriage, children, retirement and death all within the space of 80 years?
Long-lived folk would not want to remain physically childish but would aim for optimum vitality – somewhere in their mid-20s. As the technological progress speeds up, the perpetually young will need to change occupations every few years. Schooling is already a constant of modern life where everyone must update and learn new skills. Fortunately, learning becomes ever more just-in-time with the proliferation of online Khan Academy mini-lessons and Coursera university lectures.
People would outsource more of their memory to the Internet and the Cloud through their smart phones. German researchers recently suggested that the reason older folks are slower on memory tests is that they process much more information than younger folk do. Eventually the capacities of smartphone on-the-go instant knowledge will migrate into the bodies of the eternally young. Such intellectual technologies will provide eternally young users with far-more-than-genius-level analytical capabilities and information will be called up from the Cloud just as though it was a very clear memory.
What about sex and marriage? Sex will be at least as good and probably more fulfilling than it was for mortals. After all, the forever-youthful will still have the interest, sex drives and stamina of people in their mid-20s. Although the Facebook fogies at Oculus VR will not offer virtual pornography, they acknowledge that they cannot stop competitors from making VR porn available using their device. (The Internet is not just for cat videos.) Novel erotic enhancements doubtlessly will proliferate.
With the advent of general prosperity over the past couple of centuries, the ideal of marriage was evolved in developed countries from a contractual arrangement between families to a romantic joining of hearts. Marriage used to be until death do us part. If death is no longer a real termination point of a marriage pact, then new covenants with an expiry other than death will be negotiated (perhaps with an option to renew).
Since people will be living much longer, they will be less inclined to settle and will persist in their search for soulmates. As the quest goes on, intimate relationships will be more fluid and polyamorous, transforming perhaps into intermeshing circles of very long-term friends with benefits.
Modern contraception has made children optional, and fertility rates have plummeted. In fact, it is already the case that countries where life-expectancy is highest generally have below replacement rates of fertility. Interestingly, social anthropologists report that when women can expect to live more than 75 years, they bear on average fewer than 1.5 children.
University of Chicago biodemographers Leonid Gavrilov and Natalia Gavrilova, using current fertility trends, project that if everyone tomorrow could expect an indefinitely long life that the future increase in population might be as low as 22 percent, up from 7.2 billion to 8.8 billion over the next 100 years. When people expect to live for centuries the urge to cope with the fear of death by reproducing early will likely fade, and any worries that the world will become overpopulated will dissipate.
As life expectancies have been increasing, the rates of violence have been decreasing. Harvard social scientist Steven Pinker documented in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that your chances of dying a violent death are the lowest they have ever been in history. In 1900, people could expect to live on average 35 years, so using violence then to gain wealth, power, or a mate, one was risking only a decade or two of life. Now, violence risks the loss four to five decades of existence. The prospect of centuries of sweet life will reduce the rate of violence even more. And people who do attempt to engage in violence, either with criminal or political goals in mind, will not be tolerated. Thus the world of the long-lived will be much more peaceful than now.
Combining the energy and enthusiasm of youth with the capabilities gained from maturity will supercharge technological progress and economic growth. Now, when experienced people die, all of their accumulated human capital – their education, their tacit skills, their networks of cooperative contacts – is lost to the rest of us. Death is the destruction of hard-won capital just as much as the burning books or the smashing of factories is.
The forever-young will be more venturesome and ambitious in their enterprises because they can count on having the mental and physical powers to apply to their pursuit of new goals and possibilities. And no failure is permanent. It instead becomes a learning experience. When people know that they are likely to enjoy many more healthy years, they will be more inclined to longer-term thinking aimed at remedying currently intractable environmental, social and economic problems.
“Ask yourself: what do you have now, and what do you covet, that you would not gladly trade for, say, five extra years?” journalist Michael Kinsley asked in The New Yorker in 2008. Can we afford longevity treatments? The better question is how can we not? Right now, U.S. medical spending amounts to nearly $3 trillion per year, or about $10,000 per person. Now let’s assume that U.S. GDP grows from $18 trillion today at an annual compounded rate of 2 percent until 2100. GDP would rise to $97 trillion. If rejuvenation treatments cost four times more - $12 trillion - than current medical costs, that would mean we would be spending a smaller percentage of the GDP for vastly improved health.
Treatments that can keep bodies, organ, tissues and cells actually young would be a massive boon to health care. The fact is that after your mid-20s your chances of dying double for every eight years you live. The current mortality rate among Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 is less than 1 per 1,000, and the vast majority of deaths result from accidental injuries. The death rate soars to nine times higher between ages 55 and 64, to 9 per 1,000.
“A modest deceleration in the rate of biological aging would produce the equivalent of simultaneous major breakthroughs against every single fatal and nonfatal disease associated with growing older,” observed the University of Illinois at Chicago demographer Jay Olshansky in 2006. Imagine the health benefits of halting the aging process at age 25.
The 21st century will provide an ever-increasing menu of life plans and choices. Surely exhausting the coming possibilities for intellectual, artistic and even spiritual growth will take more than one standard lifetime.
Ronald Bailey is an award-winning science correspondent for Reason magazine and Reason.com.
The Science of Immortality
Seeking Immortality: Aubrey de Grey at TEDxSalford