Radical Life Extension

Living to 120

Clinical gerontologist Jane Marie Thibault has begun all of her workshops on aging with this statement: “There’s an old Jewish birthday blessing that states, ‘May you live to be 120!’ ” Then she asks, “If someone wished this for you on your next birthday, would you consider these words a blessing or a curse?” She says that most participants answer, “It depends.” Then she asks in what ways such a long life could be a blessing and in what ways it could be a curse.

In August 2013, the Pew Research Center released a report entitled “Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans’ Views on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension.” The report explained that term radical life extension is “the prospect that advances in biotechnology and other fields could slow down or turn back the biological clock and allow many humans to live to 120 years or beyond.”

In the Pew survey, over half of respondents (56 percent) said that they would not want medical treatments that would enable them to live to 120. When asked about the ideal length of their lives, most respondents (69 percent) chose an age between 79 and 100. The average life expectancy in the United States is currently 78.7 years.

The report found that respondents’ reaction to the prospect of radical life extension is “both ambivalent and skeptical.” Half (51 percent) said that medical treatments to prolong life would be bad for society, and 41 percent believed such treatments to be a good thing. A majority (73 percent) were skeptical about the likelihood that “the average person” would actually live to 120 by 2050. A majority (79 percent) also thought that these treatments should be available to everyone, but two thirds believed that only the wealthy would be able to receive them. Most respondents thought that radical life extension would be detrimental to natural resources.

Longevity Research

The scientific community has long viewed anti-aging research as relatively unimportant at best and science fiction at worst, but that view is changing. Currently, longevity research is expanding, focusing on such measures as caloric restriction, chemical compounds, and genetic engineering.

A major step in longevity research dates back to 1934, when scientists at Cornell University reported that they had doubled the life span of laboratory rats by severe cuts in their daily calories. Later research applied “caloric restriction” with similar results to yeast cells, fruit flies, hamsters, and dogs. Subsequent research on rhesus monkeys has yielded mixed results.

Another possible way to increase longevity is through genetic engineering. Scientists think that there are genes in all animals that regulate age. If they can find and manipulate these genes, they can dramatically extend human life. However, the jury is out about whether humans and higher-order animals have such genes.

A key figure in the anti-aging movement, Ray Kurzweil believes that technology offers the power to extend life radically, even indefinitely. He says that “each new generation of technology grows exponentially in capability and the speed of that process accelerates over time.” Kurzweil believes that soon technology will make it possible to put powerful machines in the human body to replace organs or improve the function of existing organs. Kurzweil contends that nanotechnology (extreme miniaturization) will allow scientists to “reverse engineer” bodily systems to the extent that humankind will eventually become immortal by total merging with machines. Then, physicality will no longer be needed. In other words, human beings will not require blood, bones, skin, and organs.

Ethical Issues: Expanding Population

The Pew report itself mentioned a number of societal and ethical issues that emerge from the possibility of living to 120 and beyond, issues that need to be addressed by people of faith. One way to frame these issues is to view them from the perspective of the Great Commandment to love our neighbor, even as the number of neighbors increase. Many people understand love of neighbor in individual terms. It is easier to help a neighbor who lives down the street than to deal with collective neighbors whom we will never see, but reflection on the ethics of life extension needs to include how to love our collective neighbors as population expands. How can we justify increasing population by life extension when so many people in the world are already going without adequate food, shelter, and medical care?

Radical life extension could lead to faster population growth, putting additional strain on the environment. Having more people means more use of fossil fuel not only for transporting people but also for agriculture and for transporting food. Using more fossil fuel increases pollution and climate change. Having more people means more housing, more land for cities and housing developments, and less land for agriculture and natural habitats for the earth’s other creatures.

The problem of population growth is related to a number of issues represented in the following questions posed by the Pew report: “What would extra decades of life mean for the solvency of programs such as Social Security and Medicare? Would dramatically longer life spans make it substantially harder to promote environmental sustainability? Would having many more healthy older people lead to dramatic increases in unemployment among the young?”

Ethical Issues: Fairness and Family Life

Critics point out that radical life extension would likely be limited to the wealthy. We live in a world where in developing countries, nearly 1.5 billion people live in extreme poverty, and daily almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes. Since we as a global community have not yet been adequately able to address such problems as poverty, hunger, violence, and disease, how could we justify offering radical life extension to the few who could afford it?

In addition, radical life extension could have dramatic effects on the family. The report asks such questions as these: If the average life span were doubled, how would that affect views on marriage? Would many people expect to marry several times within their life span? How would intergenerational relationships be affected? Imagine people who are 60 taking care of their 90-year-old parents who are taking care of their 120-year-old parents. The 60-year-olds are parents of 30-year-old adults, who are parents of children and teenagers. This picture raises questions about the feasibility of all these levels of caretaking and about how different generations relate to one another. The term sandwich generation has referred to middle-aged people who take care of both their parents and their teenage children. With radical life extension, how many layers can the “sandwich” have and still function in healthy ways?

Meaning, Purpose, and Death

Many retired persons potentially have 20 or 30 more years to live without debilitating health problems and without family responsibilities. Some of them cannot find a vocation or avocation that gives them meaning and purpose. Adding 35 more years to their lives would present quite a challenge to them, to their families, and to churches.

The Pew report says, “At a very basic level, some fear life extension could fundamentally alter people’s sense of what it means to be human—and not for the better.” Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics under George W. Bush, said that one of the “virtues of mortality” is that it encourages us to want to make each day count.

Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian at Duke Divinity School, agrees that the limit of death makes life more fulfilling. He argues that lasting love would be impossible without the limit of death because death functions as a prompt toward commitment. “Death . . . creates an economy that makes love possible,” he said. “If you lived forever, there would not be the necessity of loving this one, not that one. You could love them all.”

The prospect of radical life extension raises questions related to justice, the environment, the family, purpose and meaning of life, and the function of death. They are topics of vital interest to people of faith. How will we engage them? What impact can the faith community have on the trajectory taken by research on radical life extension?

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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