Chapter 53: To Eternity or Beyond?
120, 150, 1,000: How old is old enough?
This past April, a movie called The Age of Adaline was released in theatres across North America. The movie tells the story of Adaline Bowman, born in San Francisco in 1908, whose normal life – school, marriage, a child – changes dramatically after a car accident. Her car skids off the road into a creek, and she has essentially drowned when a bolt of lightning hits the car, not only reviving her but conveniently rearranging her DNA so that at that instant, at the age of 29, she ceases to age. Her persistent youthfulness isn’t a problem at first, but, as the years pass, her appearance arouses suspicion. Realizing that she’s about to be turned into a curiosity, she becomes an identity fugitive instead, changing her name, address and job frequently to conceal her secret. She’s convinced that her uniquely extended life has robbed her of her most fervent dream: growing old together with someone she loves.
If you take a look at most of the classic fiction that deals with people who don’t age and/or die, you’ll find the same dystopian undercurrent. Either the protagonist has to make a pact with the devil to forestall aging (Faust, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Damn Yankees) or immortality is thrust on the hero as a kind of poisoned gift (The Flying Dutchman, The Age of Adaline). The answer these stories provide to the question “How old is old enough?” is obvious. Living beyond a “normal” lifespan is deemed somehow unnatural and even immoral; and to court immortality is to court doom.
As a long-time fan and student of radical life extension, I couldn’t disagree more. For one thing, what’s “normal”? A few thousand years ago, it was “God’s will” that we should die in our 20s and 30s. A few hundred years ago, 40 became the new normal, and a hundred years ago, 50. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it was 60 and, today, in Canada, it’s 80 to 85. And yet, when a 2013 poll done by the Pew Research Center asked 2,000 Americans if they would take anti-aging treatments that would allow them to live to be 120, the majority (56 per cent) said NO. The age most people did say they’d like to live to was 90. They thought that was “old enough.” Puzzled by this reaction, I checked out some related data. Turns out that if you stipulate that the major predictable fears people have about getting old don’t apply, the answer is very different. What are those major fears? Loss of mind, loss of function, loss of independence; running out of money, being in constant pain, loneliness. That is, if we could be sure that we’d be functional, compos mentis and mobile – not much worse, say, than I am today – then living to 120 or beyond is too fascinating a prospect not to consider.
Meanwhile, what about that figure 120? Is that a practical average lifespan for us to be shooting for, say, by the year 2050?
Living to 120 is not a new idea. It is the Jewish benediction for Good Health and Long Life (May you live to 120!). In Genesis 6:3, God decrees that the maximum human lifespan will be “an hundred and twenty years.” Discounting Methuselah (969 years old) and Noah (950) as biblical poetic licence, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the writers of the Old Testament may have heard of someone who lived close to that age. More convincing are the predictions of scientists involved today in the nascent longevity “industry.” Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist, chief science officer of the SENS Foundation (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), editor of Rejuvenation Research1 and twice a speaker at my ideacity conference, says that even without learning more about the causes of the “seven types of [molecular and cellular] damage” that contribute to human aging, science is probably within “a couple of decades of developing repair strategies for these categories of damage.” By 2050, he predicts, the concept of life expectancy itself will have become meaningless because “people won’t be getting sicker and more prone to die as they get older any more … Most people alive at that time will be able to look forward to living far longer than anyone has lived so far.” According to de Grey, the recent emergence of a growing number of longevity-related companies (including Google’s entry into the field, Calico – California Life Company) shows how real are the prospects of dramatically increased lifespans by the mid-21st century. “The main thing about the private sector,” says de Grey, “is that people who want to make money tend to want to make it soon. Hence, they only get involved when at least some aspects of the work have gone far enough in terms of proof of concept that they can be taken all the way to the clinic within a few years.”
If Aubrey is right, though, and increasing numbers of older people are likely soon to be living to a much greater age, isn’t that a doomsday scenario? Won’t the earth become overcrowded, and won’t we exhaust its resources? This is the charge I hear most often from naysayers when I promote the dream of longer life. Their argument is essentially the same as the one proffered by population theorist Thomas Malthus (1776-1834). In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1799), Malthus argued that expanding fam-ily size and world population growth was a geometric inevitability, which, when weighed against the arithmetic growth of jobs and money, could only be checked by famine and disease. But what Malthus didn’t know (and what we do now) is that as people become smarter, healthier and better off, they have fewer children. There is abundant evidence now that, as more women around the world become educated and liberated, and the poorest most repressed parts of the planet gain access to distractions other than having sex and making babies, the population will level off at around 10 or 11 billion. There are also many indications the planet can feed this many people.2
I know there are those who hold the view that increased longevity is primarily a moral issue, with a burgeoning older population depriving younger people of the scarce resources and employment that is their birthright. We’ve shown several times before in this space that no such old/young plunder is taking place, but the strongest proof, again, are population trends. Stable populations require a replacement rate of 2.1 children per child-bearing woman; anything less results in a decline. Today, more than half the world’s population live in countries with sub-2.1 replacement rates, with not all of these countries belonging to the industrialized world (Thailand’s fertility rate has fallen from seven in the 1970s to 1.6 today, roughly the same as Canada’s). The average fertility rate of the developing world has now dropped below three. In fact, many of the same experts who predict a peak of 10 billion people also anticipate that the population will drop below that before it stabilizes again. In that case, nothing could be more beneficial to future young people than a large older demographic who lives for a very long time.
All right, some skeptics might say, so maybe all of those old people won’t sink civilization – but what will they contribute to humanity? I can think of several things – our experience, our role as living historians, our compassion – but our net utility is not the issue. As long as we can stay vital and interested, the question “How old is old enough?” is ours alone to answer. Aubrey de Grey considers the question “abominably ageist,” and I’m inclined to agree. I think instead of a runaway population spiral, we’re on the threshold of a period of natural self-selection. In a decade or two, people for whom continued life is painful, physically or psychologically, will have the right to end their lives in a peaceful way (and today’s controversy about assisted suicide will be ancient history). Whereas people who wish to live on will be able and entitled to keep going, not just because they’re functioning but because they want to; and the world will find its level, without robbing us of our choice.
At the end of The Age of Adaline (spoiler alert!), Adaline, now 107, finally lets herself fall in love and, in a panic, runs away again; but in the process, she ends up having precisely the same kind of car accident she had 78 years earlier. Once again, her heart stops; this time, it’s restarted by the defibrillating paddles of an ambulance crew, which also restores her DNA to its former configuration. A year later, now happily married and looking in the mirror, she finds her first grey hair. She has her wish; she’s finally getting old. It’s meant to be a happy ending, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t cheer. For me, the chance to live on means the chance to satisfy the most compelling curiosity any human can have: finding out how things turn out. That curiosity is for me endless. So I’ll take a pass on The Age of Adaline and a chance on The Age of Moses. The one thing better than predicting the future is being there when it happens.
1. The world’s only peer-reviewed journal focused on intervention in aging
2. Virtually every significant famine in the world up to now has been a result not of lack of food but problems in getting the food to the people who need it, usually because of human conflict.
Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website. Click here for more information.