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by Ricky Piper Published on 6th Apr 2015
by Ricky Piper Published on 6th April 2015
Not all of us want to live forever. However, few would pass at the chance of a guaranteed long and healthy life. Seeing our health decline as we grow older, and departing this earth often decades before our 100th birthday is a concept most of us reluctantly accept, but as medical, scientific and technological advances continue to make possible what we had thought impossible just years before, many now see this condition as no longer inevitable. In recent years, a proliferation of individuals, groups, organisations, institutions and corporations have emerged with a stated mission to combat the effects of aging and prolong healthy lifespan. From the simple blogger, to the esteemed research institution, and on to the multi-billion dollar corporation, a huge and growing international network and community of like-minded people are now attempting to either promote the cause or directly find ways to extend healthy life. With the establishment of big-budget longevity research and development corporations such as the Google-backed Calico and J. Craig Venter co-founded Human Longevity Inc., as well as media focus on high-profile investors such as PayPal founder Peter Thiel, the subject of human longevity is finally moving from the radical or even taboo to become both a key point of discussion and multi billion dollar industry. But why extend life?The Myth of Old AgeFirstly, dying of ‘old-age’ is in itself a myth. Instead ‘damage’ to our bodies which accumulates naturally throughout our lifetime leaves us more susceptible to numerous medical conditions such as cancer, heart and lung disease and brain dysfunctions such as parkinson’s and alzheimer’s as we get older. It is the increased inability of the aged body to combat these diseases which results in death, not age itself. If ways can be found to minimise this damage, repair, and negate the effects it has upon us later in life, then there is no reason why the years in which we enjoy a fully mobile healthy existence both physically and mentally cannot be prolonged in a significant way, and extended beyond what is currently possible in even the most long-lived individuals. Man-made advances in science, medicine and technology have already resulted in us living far longer than our ancestors, so why not find ways that we can stay healthy for longer too? The effect this could have upon lifespan, we don’t know, but life extension isn’t just about living longer. It is about finding ways to prolong the time we spend in peak condition. Both advocates of life extension and the institutions which strive to make it a possibility do not always agree on how this can be achieved. For example, the transhumanist view that human abilities should be enhanced through genetic modification, and the posthumanist preference for integrating technology within our biology are by no means shared by everyone. There is also debate as to whether high profile campaigns such as the Transhumanist Party leader Zoltan Istvan’s running for US President in 2016 are beneficial in raising awareness or only strengthen perceptions that the concept of human longevity is too ‘out there’ to be taken seriously. Inevitably, the idea that we can engineer ourselves to function more efficiently and for longer like any man-made machine can seem to stray too far into the realms of science fiction to be palatable for some. However, at the core of the life extension movement the principle is wholly rational and always the same; there is no reason why we should simply accept the consequences of aging as inevitable, and any means which allow us to stay healthy for longer can only be a good thing. The Economic and Social Impact of Aging There are of course concerns over the populational and societal impact which may occur if we can extend life expectancy in a significant way. In an already overpopulated world, reservations as to whether putting off nature’s most natural means of keeping the numbers down cannot be easily dismissed. However, what is clear is that the current state of affairs is anything but ideal. At present, our increased life expectancy is simply not matched by our ability to stay healthy for longer, meaning that our twilight years are more often than not burdened by numerous ailments and dependency on others. This continues to present serious issues for societies throughout the world. According to the most recent World Health Organisation figures, treating age-related diseases in the over 65s currently accounts for almost half of the estimated $7 trillion spent worldwide on healthcare each year, and most developed nations are already having to come to terms with a shrinking working to non-working population ratio; leading to an inevitable rise in pension and benefit costs, a reduced workforce, and ultimately a stagnation in economic growth. Aging, simply put, is a major societal and economic issue which like any other warrants greater attention on how it can be addressed. A Radical Change in How We Approach DiseaseFor many, the key to extending healthy life is thus using advanced technology to understand what makes us sick and developing ways of fighting these conditions before they actually manifest themselves as serious illness. A movement towards pre-emptive procedures would therein represent a significant overhaul of the current well-established treatment-based medicine model. It is this which ensures that the word ‘radical’ is often suffixed to the term life extension, as in essence, it is indeed a radical change in how we approach disease which is essential to its success. In this regard, one of the frontrunners - Human Longevity Inc. will already open its first ‘Health Hub’ clinic this year, offering individual DNA screening and personalised treatments as an alternative to conventional medicine. However, the success of the company’s plan to transfer the benefits of its longevity research to the general public as quickly as possible is of course dependent upon whether said public will allow it. Changing AttitudesIn this sense, in accordance with a 2013 Pew Research Centre poll looking at American attitudes towards aging that found 56% of those polled would say “no” to undergoing life extension related procedures, it is our willingness to seek and accept new treatments designed to extend life which will impact most on the rate of development. This point was reiterated by Aubrey de Grey Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation in a recent interview with London Real in which he stated that: "We've got to get people more comfortable with undergoing medical treatments while they are still healthy". Such a view is shared by many within the life extension community who feel that the concept of human longevity is still viewed by too many as an idealist luxury, when in fact it is a very real and in many ways essential possibility. As a consequence, it seems that the greatest impediment to prolonging healthy life may be our attitude towards it, but if as hoped, greater awareness and investment translate to tangible results in the near future, this is likely to become increasingly no longer the case. Beginning this month, LIFEmag will be conducting its own poll and research into worldwide attitudes towards life extension and the treatment of age-related disease. For up to date news and announcements subscribe to our newsletter and follow us via our various social media channels by clicking the links on the Home Page.