Monday, February 06, 2006

Let's live for ever

Start the week starred the well known somewhat cranky gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, who predicts that some people alive today will live to the age of 1000 thanks to rejuvenation technology. I glanced at some of de Grey's writing about a year ago and concluded that he was exaggerating the potential somewhat.

However the most interesting response to de Grey is opposition. Other panellists responded "why should we want to live to 200", "what is wrong with frailty?" and talked about overpopulation. I think these responses - which I shared the first time I considered this issue - are not only missing the point but are frightening. All medical technologies could be similarly doubted, and it would be hideous to do so. What de Grey anticipates are medical technologies so effective they make our present technology seem like leeches and a hole in the head. We are largely resigned to dying in our first century, this is better than spending a life in fear of death. But it doesn't mean that death in the our first century is desirable.

If you don't want to live to 200, you can take the way out any time you choose. We find suicide terrible, but perhaps we should find natural death terrible, and respect the chosen death after a long life, celebrating the fact that nature did not intervene sooner.

But what about overpopulation? What about healthcare, including the costs of and access to longevity technology? What about pensions? These will be significant challenges, but not so significant I think that we should seek to kill everybody off at the age of 80 by suppressing the technology.

Longevity will harm annuity returns. People will have to work longer, and probably draw down their pension funds rather than buy annuities. This will happen anyway, it is just a matter of degree. But the drop in annuity returns will come before the technology because the market will see it coming.

Access to healthcare? Doubtless the treatments will be expensive. Again, this is a problem we have already. There is an insatiable demand for healthcare and a limited budget. However reformed and well funded a NHS is, there will always be good treatments it cannot afford. But generally the NHS can afford them eventually. So what is new?

Overpopulation? It seems misanthropic even to ask the question. The population booms that have occurred in each country roughly around the time of industrialisation result not from the fact that people started breeding like rabbits - they always had - but from the fact that they stopped dying like flies. Birthrates would eventually adjust to restore balance. We are still dying like flies, just not as infants any more. We should expect significant longevity gains to result in another temporary population boom. Like industrialisation, a permanent benefit for a temporary cost.

And we see this misanthropy already when people talk about the 'problem' of there being a large number of pensioners. The correct word is 'triumph'.

These are significant challenges, for sure. But opposing the technology is the moral equivalent to shooting pensioners, or bombing the ballroom at Blackpool Tower. De Grey may be optimistic, but these questions will arise one day. Let's welcome them when they do.


Michael Yamashita said...

Dear Mr. Otten,

Thank you for your thoughtful and supportive posting on longevity technology.

You and your readers may also want to check out the Methuselah Prize's site, - Aubrey is the chief scientist there. Here we're working to catalyze new technologies to combat aging.

So come in and join the conversation!


Michael Yamashita
Blog outreach volunteer
Methuselah Foundation

Longevity Science said...

Thank you for your interesting post!
I thought perhaps you may also find this related story interesting to you:
Longevity Science: SENS