10 September 2009

Unimaginative thinking about longer lives

Filed under: aging, Methuselah, vision — David Wood @ 12:21 am

TimesOnline recently carried a piece entitled, “Live For Ever – The promise of more and more life will bring us all problems“.

I believe the article to be small-minded.  It displays a weak imagination.  I submitted an online comment to explain my viewpoint, but the moderator butchered my comment, making it almost unintelligible.  My opinion of the Times has taken a dive.

Here’s what I submitted – referring in each case to text from the original article:

…we will pay a heavy price for our longevity. If we are unable to abolish chronic illness, then the cost of treating an extended span would quickly bankrupt the National Health Service.

Any serious anti-aging program will address chronic illness en route to extending human lifespan.  There’s no need to worry, on this account, about bankrupting the NHS.

If genetic therapy did somehow extend the quality of life into deep old age, then pension provision and social care would be astronomically expensive. The pension age will have to rise in units of a decade.

But what’s the problem about raising the pension age?  Any serious anti-aging program intends to extend youthful (productive) life, rather than frail (unproductive) life.  People who live longer will probably have several different careers, interspersed with periods of voluntary “retirement”.  There are many attractive scenarios to contemplate.

The pressure on resources — housing, schools, employment, food — would soon become intolerable.

Yes, there are challenges in providing food (etc) for larger populations, but there’s nothing insurmountable about these challenges.  For example, the sun emits enormous amounts of energy that we presently fail to tap.  The technology of the next decades should allow us to use this energy to feed a population many times larger than at present.

Life in the eternal future may yet be solitary, poor, nasty and brutish, precisely because it will no longer be short.

Anti-aging programs intend, not only to extend life, but to expand it.  My expectation is that people will gain huge numbers of new interests, new social connections, and ways of spending time that are both enjoyable and valuable.

Footnote: Anyone who finds these arguments of interest will probably benefit from reading at least the earlier chapters of Aubrey de Grey‘s book “Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime“.  Note this is not a light read, but it is well written and makes a strong case.

PS Anders Sandberg also posted comments to the TimesOnline system, but the moderator seems to have deleted these entirely.  See Anders’ own posts “Stupid arguments against life extension” and “Longer life, more trouble?”  I can’t resist quoting an extract of the latter article:

Arguing that longer life should not be pursued because it would mess up pension ages and other current social institutions is like arguing that we should not try to reduce crime – after all, what would the legal system do if there were fewer criminals and victims? The great ills of infirmity, disease and death caused by ageing are significantly greater than the potential social problems their cure would cause. Each of the stated problems can also be overcome if society so wishes – changing the pension system or having to pay a more taxes is a small price to pay for more life and potential happiness.

If the finitude of human life is what makes us happy, how come the generally happiest (as measured by e.g. the World Values Study) countries are the most long-lived? How come countries and populations with shorter lifespans are not happier?

…to assume that [death] gives meaning to life is like arguing that the value of love is entirely due to divorce.


  1. David, to be fair to The Times, it probably wasn’t a moderator who butchered your comment. Most newspaper comment boxes have character limits and not very sophisticated formatting software. If you wrote your comment offline and then pasted into the comment box then the butchering was probably done by software.

    However The Times is certainly at fault for not having a preview button on its comment box.

    Comment by Martin Budden — 10 September 2009 @ 5:54 pm

  2. An article in New Scientist [5-Sep-2009 page 42] suggests that, currently, people who live to be “very old” tend to remain healthy and active rather than simply requiring health care for longer.

    It quotes a number of studies, and the trends seem encouraging though one would have to look deeper to be sure of the data.

    Comment by Peter Jackson — 27 September 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    • Thanks for the pointer to the New Scientist article.

      Since I posted my blog on the subject, I’ve run across a very interesting 5-minute video about a healthcare, engineering and medical solution to the economic and humanitarian problem of the greying population:


      It’s well worth watching!

      Comment by David Wood — 27 September 2009 @ 7:36 pm

  3. Yes, a mainstream message – enough for the average politician to understand in a short space of time. There should be influence to produce something like this in the US for the equivalent of a “party political broadcast” (like we have in the UK), so the power is carried to the younger generation of voters – although I think the priority should be on renewable, non-carbon based energy, which is just as feasible. We’ll be in prolonged wars and global warming because of fossil fuels in <20 years, (*) especially as age related deaths have actually kept our carbon costs low up to now. I would hazard a guess that the mainstream consider this more important as well – what would you make of my last point(*) though?

    Comment by chrisnsx — 29 September 2009 @ 4:00 pm

    • Hi Chris – Interesting thoughts.

      These are big topics and they deserve a lot more thought.

      I’ll be returning (in a way) to some of these same topics in my next (or perhaps next-but-one) blog – which I have already drafted and which plan to post in the next few days.

      Comment by David Wood — 29 September 2009 @ 4:13 pm

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