Thursday, July 24, 2008

Forever Young

The average life expectancy has been gradually creeping upward. In the time of the Roman Empire, people were lucky if they lived into their thirties. People in the US now live an average of 78 years. But what if we had the ability to extend life 30-40 years, thereby allowing people to live in reasonably good health well into their second century?

The technology is rapidly becoming available to do just that. We will have the ability to alter genes that affect the aging process. We will have the ability to regenerate aging organs or joints or even skin using stem cell research.

But should we be tampering with the natural evolution of the species? Can a planet that is already overpopulated and gobbling up the natural resources at an alarming rate sustain a burgeoning elderly population?

And if the ability to extend life were to become a reality, would it cost so much that only the richest in our society could afford it?

I ask myself: Would I want to live to 140? Unless I went back to work, that would mean more than half my life retired! Something just seems terribly out of balance in that picture.

Mankind has always searched for the fountain of youth, that magical elixir that would postpone our decline and death. Now that it is within the realm of possibility, we must look at the ethics of artificially extending life.


Blogger Mo said...

Oh, goodie. That gives me more time to pay off my student loans...

10:44 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Mo -- Hmmm. Your student loan amortized over the next 100 years would probably result in a small monthly payment! Unfortunately it's a little premature...

10:55 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Seems to me living longer would only be worth it if everyone around you also opted to live longer. Otherwise you'd eventually be left behind, and THAT's no fun.

I dealt with a lot of older people while doing medical reporting and writing in Florida, and lemme tell you, I think it's possible to live too long.

And yes, the ethics of who could afford to live and who would have to die are a really BIG can o' worms.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Steve -- I watched my father outlive most of his friends and colleagues and wife and he was one lonely individual when he died at 86, nowhere close to 140. You are absolutely right -- it's either all or none. Anything else makes no sense at all.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Lemmonex said...

Slate just had a really interesting article about this. It talked about Medicare and if it should pay for pacemakers for people in their 90s.

Personally, I would only want life that is quality. My great grandfather lived until 98 and spent the last 5 years of his life crying for "his Yulch", my great grandma. As awful as this sounds, I don't think there should have been so much intervention when he has a stroke at 94.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Lemmonex -- The age limit on transplants was another ethical issue raised last week at Chautauqua. I would hate to be the otherwise healthy person just over the limit for a kidney transplant. There is something artificial about age limits like this.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Kellyann Brown said...

Barbara, your site has turned quite controversial lately!


My mom is 78 years old. When asked if she wanted a "lifetime" warranty for her new sewing machine, she answered, "Of course!"

Now if you know my mom, you will know that she will live to 120 just to get her money's worth on that warranty!

1:31 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kelly -- Nothing like differing opinions to spark a good conversation!

I hope your mom gets her money's worth and more. So much of growing older relies on a positive attitude toward the aging process.

Would your mom sign up for another 50 years if given the opportunity?

1:43 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

I'm already tired at 32. I come from long-lived people, with grandparents and great-grandparents living well into their 90s. I can't imagine living past 100. It does seem a very lonely existence.

1:44 PM  
Blogger steve said...

My aunt used to say
Only the good die young"...she lived to be 98 and yes, she was a very good woman.
I think that there is little that us human beings have the GENIUS to get ourselves into that we don't have the GENIUS to get ourselves back out of.
In other words, we should not use "Ignorance " as an excuse to leave technologies unexplored, but we should explore with a certain degree of discretian.
When i was younger, i enjoyed the Heinlein series starting with 'Methuselahs Children"...

Me? i'll go with any transplant or procedure they have available as long as they do not take away my suicide Heinleins stories you have to have a suicide button, and it may be as we start across these techniological waters that the ability to end our life at will should be worth consideration.
read the 1st Chapter of "Time Enough for LOve"

1:47 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- For some reason your comment reminded me of something my father said late in his life: "I'm going to quit visiting my friends in the hospital because every time I do they die." He was more than ready to go when the time came. Ironically he spent his last days in a convalescent home that was formerly the hospital in which I was born, just across the lake from where he had lived for 50 years.

At 32 most of your life is still ahead of you. You will be around to see just how society deals with this ethical issue.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Steve #1 -- I'm all for giving a person full control over when to check out. That time differs for each of us, but I think it should be our choice. There are a lot of people out there suffering from untold pain and horror who would certainly like to have a suicide button.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Pauline said...

My mother always thought we should have been designed with zippers, buttons, and replaceable parts. She died at 65 and has missed a lot in terms of family and grandchildren and human inventiveness. She'd love to have been in on the discussions your last two posts have engendered.

If I could stay healthy, I'd opt for hanging around as long as possible.

3:59 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- Your mother would have had a ball last week at Chautauqua where every day a new set of ethical questions was posed. It prompted some great dinner discussions. She sounds like she was wise beyond her years!

As for you, I can imagine you writing your lovely poems forever!

4:40 PM  
Blogger media concepts said...

I think the biggest ethical issue is the one you raised about cost. It should be obvious that, unless we change the current system and help provide health care to everyone, only the rich will be able to afford the medical care needed to live that long. Ironically, those in government who oppose greater health care for Americans are happy to receive gold-plated health care for free, courtesy of the taxpayers. So you would have Dick Cheney getting free heart surgery and pacemakers every year to get him to 140, while most of the rest of us would die much younger because we couldn't afford the necessary medical care to reach our potential age.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

MC -- The concept of democracy would go right out the window as the rich moved to the head of the age-extender line. As with so many things, it would come down to how much $$$ you had in the bank. The sad truth...

10:23 PM  

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