You probably don’t want to die. Most people don’t. But death takes us all no matter our preference. As children we are taught that one day we’ll have to leave Neverland, grow old, and pass on, but still, inside, most of us don’t generally welcome the permanence of the hereafter.
Most cultures have some version of this mythos, built to teach us that death is a duty, and aging is a means of learning the resolve to face our grave obligation with dignity. We tell ourselves these stories because for most of human history, people didn’t expect to live much past their 35th birthday. Sabretooths, gangrene, common colds: Death was always just around the corner. It therefore made good sense to sugarcoat and proclaim the nobility of passing on to the next world, the next body, or simply blinking into nothing.
Though we are unique among Earth’s creatures in that we can anticipate our demise, in all our intellectual superiority, we often can’t picture it. Steven Cave, author of Immortality and executive director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at Cambridge, refers to this as “the mortality paradox”: We know we’re going to die, but we are unable to imagine the form and function of that death, unable to conceive of a world in which we don’t exist.
Cave suggests a thought experiment: Imagine you’re dead. What do you see? Probably your loved ones milling about, right? (Hopefully they’re saying nice things about you.) Maybe you’re up in heaven, in line at St. Peter’s pearly gates. It’s possible you’re in the Bad Place, Ted Danson and all. Whatever you envision, you’re still there in the picture and in a similar form as you are now. “The very act of imagining summons you like a genie, into virtual being,” Cave writes. “[In] a dark and empty void you are still there—the observer, the envisioning eye.”
But science is now laying siege to the deeply embedded notions that death and aging are immovable realities of life—and science may be winning.
Germ theory, sanitation protocols, and modern medicine already add decades to our lives. Current efforts want to push that limit even further. As industry has evolved from horse and buggy to steam-powered machines and computer-powered everything, medicine has gone from magic to hard science, adding years—and then decades—to our lives. “Forever” is no longer unthinkable, which grates against our programming to accept the noble obligation of death.
People (myself included) have made the argument that life extension is foolish at best and immoral at worst; that a pursuit of the life eternal (or at least a life lot-longer) is downright inhuman.
But what if it’s the opposite?
The National Institute for Health has a division dedicated to addressing and treating the unique problems of aging. Silicon Valley is doing everything it can to beat back death, including efforts to marry our bodies to machines and upload our minds to a mainframe. Some even believe that we will become energy in our ultimate form, destined to explore the cosmos as matterless clouds.
One of these avenues, if not all, is going to find some measure of success.
History bears out this belief. We’ve already doubled our life expectancy without even trying. Over the past 100 years, our medical science has mainly focused on threats that cut us down in our prime. Most of us have never had to worry about polio, the Spanish flu, or smallpox. We know now to wash our hands and keep our sewerage away from our drinking water. As a result, we’re growing grayer.
The University of North Carolina Population Center analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and found that in 1910, infectious diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diarrhea accounted for 46% of all US deaths. In 2010, those conditions accounted for only 3%. Accidents, kidney disease, senility, and cerbrovasuclar disease (which is a fancy term for problems with the brain’s blood supply) were top-10 causes of death in both time periods, but the total numbers of deaths from these conditions declined 61% from 1910 to 2010. By far, the biggest killers in the developed world today are conditions like heart disease and cancer: diseases directly related to how long we’re living. It’s not necessarily that cancer is becoming more common—it’s that more of us are living long enough to get it.
We’ve gotten this far be mainly playing defense, but researchers feel it’s time we switch to offense. To do this, we must snuff out our greatest killer: the fact we get older.
Leonard Guarente is just one of many who believes it’s time to shift our strategy to attack mode. He has a scientific advisory board made up of seven Nobel-prize winners and a dozen more luminaries in variety of fields such as genetics, neuroscience, and the microbiome to back him up.
Not that he necessarily needs them to. Guarente is a revered name on his own accord in the field of gerontology, which is the study of what happens to human life as we age. His lab at MIT spearheaded early research into sirtuins, cellular proteins that have the ability slow the mechanisms of aging within individual cells. An early discovery was that these proteins are most active in cells during times of stress or limited food. Ever heard someone talk endlessly at a party about the youth-bestowing benefits of caloric restriction? In a large part, you can thank (or blame) Guarente for that.
When Guarente’s lab discovered ways to activate the sirtuins without having to live in near-starvation conditions, he founded the natural supplement company Elysium to sell that technology directly to public. His company’s product, called Basis, is a pill containing pterostilbene, a polyphenol similar to red wine’s resveratrol, and nicotinamide riboside, a NAD+ precursor that helps increase available nicotinamide adenine dinucleotides in the blood. These compounds are proven to help kick-start cellular sirtuin production.
Guarente says his company’s aim is the same as all of medical science: to improve health outcomes, not extend lives. “We see ourselves as being in the business of just trying to keep people healthier longer,” he told Quartz. But since his approach attacks the mechanisms of aging itself, if people live longer because of it, “We think that’s a good thing.”
And not just because we’ll live longer. If we were we to add significantly to our total number of years, people might start caring more about the future, Guarente says, mainly because they’ll be living in it. “It might make people worry a little bit more about things like climate change, and problems of that kind. If you live longer, it’s more likely to affect you.”
Guarente isn’t the only one trying to allow us to live longer, healthier lives—but he’s the cheapest. At $60 a month, Elysium’s Basis is on the cheaper side of life-expanding options. Cryogenics, one of the oldest immortality plays, goes for around $20,000 a pop. Russian billionaire Dimitri Itskov has poured millions into his 2045 initiative, and Alphabet’s secretive Calico has hundreds of millions on hand to spend on efforts to keep the reaper at bay.
Cutting-edge technology is often prohibitively expensive. Just like the first IBM PC cost about the same as a decent car does nowadays, so too will be the latest and greatest in life extension.
For the foreseeable future, life extension will be just a wonderfully shiny bauble of luxury far beyond most of our reach. And how could we ethically pursue such an end—dedicating resources and time—when those in the developing world on average die a full 30 years before those in the West? Don’t we have a duty to level the playing field before doing anything to make our own field better?
But that’s never stopped us before. Technology advances first for those who have the money, then moves forward for the rest. “As a practical matter, it may be necessary to let some groups surge ahead in order to develop the process in order to bring down the cost so everyone can have it,” Davis says. This isn’t always a bad thing. At the dawn of the cell phone, many people in Africa still lacked landlines—but by the time the continent had advanced far enough to address that problem, portable phone tech had become so cheap that it allowed Africa to bypass those legacy systems entirely, leapfrog landlines, and go straight to mobiles.
Disparity of access is a valid concern, especially when lack of access means death. But that shouldn’t stop us from exploring the potential of what’s possible. However, as we probe the edges of our limits, we must remain dedicated to eventually making any discoveries available to all.
And besides, limited access may be necessary, at least at first. The world has only so many resources, and our booming population is already stressing what we have available. If we were to add another 20 to 40 years to the lifespans of every person on Earth, it could have cataclysmic global consequence.
At the end of the 18th century, English cleric, scholar, and demographer Thomas Malthus postulated that death is the best check against a famine induced global cataclysmic tragedy. “The power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race,” he writes in An Essay on the Principle of Population.
Malthus was one of the first to observe that there’s a proportional relationship between food supply and population: Advances in agricultural technology lead to higher crop yields, which leads to healthier babies and higher populations. Malthus feared rapid unchecked population growth would inevitably outstrip a civilizations’ ability to feed all the people: a fear that is now called a Malthusian crisis.
We already fail to clothe, shelter, and power all 7 billion of the world’s population. Climate change will only stretch our ability to do the same for the next billion people we’re projected to add over the next 20 years. If war, poverty, and our inclination toward the dangers of vice fail to eliminate enough of our numbers, a “gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world,” Malthus says.
In other words: Unless enough of us bow out early on account of stupidity, violence, or health, homo sapiens is screwed.
Of all the arguments against life extension, the Malthusian catastrophe is the one that worries Davis the most. Rather than think about the problem in the abstract, he teamed up with a demographer to find out what would happen to the world if we were to live to be 150, or even 1,000 years old. What they found was that sustainable life extension may come with some pretty tough decisions.
In the first set of numbers they ran, everyone in his hypothetical population of a billion people are on some form life-extension therapy that allows them to live to 150 (which is a number bandied about as possible within our lifetimes). In the second set, the life-extension tech is way better, and everyone lives to 1,000 (which Davis believes would be the median life expectancy if we could remove all age-related diseases).
In the first scenario, if every woman were to have two children—one when the woman is 25 and another when she reaches 75—the population would triple in just over a 100 years, and we’d reach 21 billion sometime by the end of this century. That’s a full 10 billion more than current projections. “So even a fairly modest increase in life expectancy—less than a doubling—will produce a Malthusian crisis,” Davis says. But if we tighten our belts a little—say one child per every two women—things start to level out at a one-third increase after a couple of decades, then starts to decline. The same happens in the second scenario after 850 years.
His model shows that the world could survive if we live longer, but we’d have to make other concessions. He concedes that his plan isn’t exactly perfect—or moral. But Davis proposes that only those who opt-in to life extension would need to be restricted. It’s a poor choice between our lives and the lives of our prospective children, but it’s an inevitable one if our median ages continue to rise. We should prepare ourselves to make this decision—or at least prepare our children to ponder.
Novelist Susan Ertz once wrote, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” (And grandmothers everywhere responded, “Only boring people get bored.”)
When we accomplish everything we want, when we’ve seen all that we care to see, when we’ve experienced anything that interests us—what would we do with another 100 years? Even the most interesting person can only fill so many hours of days.
John K. Davis is a professor of philosophy at Cal State Fullerton and author of the forthcoming New Methuselahs: The Ethics of Life Extension. He sees this as a value-of-life question: “I think it’s fair to say that, roughly speaking, a life has value when a person living it finds it worth living, or when it’s worthwhile for a person to continue living that life.” The great majority of us can agree that any life, whether it’s that of a 20 year-old or an 80 year-old, objectively has value. There’s no reason to believe that value should decrease at 150 years—or 500 years.
But for the person living to 500—someone who’s done all they hope to and cannot find more to engage with—life could indeed become boring, and very well lose its value. But in their Journal of Ethics paper “Immortality and Boredom,” The Immortality Project’s Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin and John Martin Fischer argue that the length of life may not matter at all. ”If you’re the type of person who’s gonna get bored,” he told Quartz, “you’re going to get bored no matter how long you live.”
Davis admits we have no frame of reference to postulate how living into a fifth century will affect our mental health, but he feels that negative outcomes could be mitigated through life changes and medication, much like they are now. Those of us who feel blue at 502 may just need a change of scenery or a new hobby—and if those don’t work, a 31st-century boredom pill.
In the end, it’s hard to predict what we may do and how we may change when the nature of how we think about our time on Earth is fundamentally altered by our supply of it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t try to obtain those gains—rather, it reaffirms a need to proceed with caution, to move forward with eyes wide open.
But beyond all the arguments of extending our lives on Earth, one day our planet too will die. All other things equal or ignored, the only way we will survive is if we explore the vast distances of space and colonize other worlds. And for that we will need to find a way to live long enough as individuals or as a species to survive centuries-long trips to other galaxies. That fact presents maybe the best case for life extension: that in order to fulfill our desires to see the stars and become an intergalactic species, we ourselves must live on a galactic scale.
Correction: This article has been updated to ammend the active ingredients in Elysium’s Basis.