Can we live forever?
Author makes case why immortality may be possible as life expectancies continue to grow
May 16, 2013
Illustration: Beckham G. Miller, Daily Times Herald
Compound interest. Of all the strands of imagination and provocations and fear and excitement that engage one during Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Weiner's terrific book, "Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality," the one that rushes to the fore for me is compound interest.
In "Long for This World," Weiner takes the reader on an accessible-to-the-masses scientific journey through the world's research into aging - and the increasing ranks of researchers who look at getting old as a disease, no different than, say, Alzheimer's, with a cure within man's grasp.
" I mean, I think it's inconceivable that people born even 10 years ago will die of old age in spite of our pitiful reluctance to hurry - because serendipity will get us there in the end," says Aubrey de Grey, the brash British biomedical gerontologist at the center of Weiner's book.
" Babies born in 2030 may have a life expectancy of 120 and live halfway into the next century," writes Weiner.
Aubrey de Grey - a colorful Cambridge, England, man, a beer swiller with a biblically long beard who is perhaps the world's most well-known evangelist for immorality - talks of contemporary human life in terms of thousands of years. The next Methuselah (at 969 the oldest man in the Bible) may have been born, in de Grey's reasoning.
(Some more of de Grey's reasoning: "I find it useful to look unusual." Or "Anyone can have kids. A lot of people are very good at it. I want to make a difference.")
Iconoclast, yes. But de Grey is no lone modern-day Ponce de Leon, the explorer who died in 1521. A search for the fountain of youth - which de Leon thought was in Florida - continues in earnest.
Weiner's book carries a full chapter on the so-called "Garbage catastrophe," an examination of what happens with cellular and organ deterioration. Is it possible to regenerate or fix what is breaking in the human body to kill aging? "Long for This World" also references resvetarol, a substance found in the skins of grapes that prolongs the lives of laboratory mice. Weiner notes that some websites are pitching the product. (Centuries ago athletes in China would have sex dozens of times a day, holding back orgasms, in the belief that it would cure all diseases and health issues.)
" In 10 years we will have a pill that gives you 20 years," Leonard Guarente, a professor of biology at MIT, told The Atlantic Monthly. "And then there will be another pill after that. The first 150-year-old may already have been born."
The director of an international laboratory on longevity and survival predicts by mid-century, life expectancies in some nations may reach 100. What's more, Dr. James Vaupel of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, tells The New York Times that other researchers who share his views predict life expectancies might hit 130 years in some countries by 2050.
" There is no reason to believe that life expectances can't continue to go up two to three years per decade," Vaupel tells The Times. "Biomedical progress is really impressive. We are beginning to understand cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease. In animal models, we are beginning to understand how to slow aging itself."
Which gets us back to compound interest.
If someone invested $10,000 at age 20 in the stock market (and assumed an historical 8 percent annual return), that initial figure would grow to $319,204 by the time the person was 65, Clay Netusil, a Raymond James Financial investment professional, said in an interview. If the same 20-year-old lived to be 120, that $10,000 initial investment would increase in value to $21,998,000.
What's more, let's assume that the 20-year-old investor put down $10,000 and then feeds $1,200 annually over the next century into the market fund. When he reaches 120 years of age, that investor would have $58 million, Netusil calculated, again using the 8 percent figure.
Of course, this doesn't take into account inflation, but it is safe to assume inflation won't grow at 8 percent annually. A more likely number is 2.5 percent, meaning a $30,000 car would cost $350,000 in a century.
Even if you don't - or won't - want to delve into immortality as a topic, imagine how you could change your family tree if you set up a "century fund," with the forced discipline of a 100-year run, to boost the lives of your grandkids and great-grandkids? Your family could go from middle-class to dynasty in three generations.
It's a relevant question in the broader discussion of life expectancies.
The speculation that life spans could nearly double in the next 50 years for the most fortunate human beings raises a laundry list of socio-economic and political issues, chiefly the growing divide between the rich and the poor.
As we march to swim in a fountain of youth, a celebration of 50 as the "new 25" or middle-age crises starting at 70, much of the world is dealing with life expectancies we passed by a century or more ago. In Chad the life expectancy for people born this year is 49, the lowest ranking in the world, according to the CIA's World Fact Book.
In the developing world, people are dying because they can't get enough to eat. In America, we're worried about our population being fat and dying because they eat too much.
"If a cure for aging became available to the rich before the poor, which is the way the world always turns, then the unfairness of life might become absolutely unsustainable," Weiner writes. "How would our world of haves and have-nots go on spinning if the haves lived for a thousand years while the children of the have-nots went right on dying hungry at the age of 5?"
Talk about a recruiting tool for revolution and terrorism.
The Atlantic Monthly recently carried an article on the subject: "The Death Shortage: Why the longevity boom will make us sorry to be alive."
In the piece, author Charles C. Mann isn't advocating the pulling of feeding tubes (or the ghoulish death panels of Sarah Palin's Twittering mind). He's discussing extraordinary means that will be available to enhance life and add decades to life spans - developments like gene therapy and offshore organ banks where wealthy westerners can go to literally get spare parts. Real sci-fi-meets-life stuff.
A society with grandparents who are still buying Christmas gifts for their grandparents will be dramatically different in many respects.
Today, wealth can buy someone some extra years. But we generally think of this in terms of just that, years. Imagine when the rich can buy decades of life, longevity not available to the poor in this nation and others? How will we structure entitlement systems? On "Meet the Press" a few months ago, U.S. House Minority leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, artfully dodged questions about raising the retirement age to 70 - although he did allow that such a move as an "option." What if people start living to 120, but aren't able to work past 75?
During the 20th century, the U.S. life expectancy has gained about 30 years, "or about as much as our species had gained before in the whole struggle of existence," notes Weiner.
In 1776 the average U.S. life expectancy was 35 years old. It stood at 47 in 1900, 60 in 1930 and today is 76 for men and 81 for women.
If aging is "cured," the way people will die is through accidents, which would radically change the way we think about risk.
According to Weiner's book, in 18th Century France, the Maquis de Condorcet, a friend of Benjamin Franklin's, predicted that: "a period must one day arrive when death will be nothing more than the effect of extraordinary accidents."
Die in a car accident now at age 50, and it's sad to be sure. But, realistically, you are only out 20 to 30 years. But get in the same accident in 2150 when life expectancies are, say, 150, and you're out a century - or two lifetimes by the standards of someone born in 1900 America.
" He couldn't help feeling frightened in cars," Weiner writes of de Grey after driving him around Pennsylvania. "That's how everyone will feel," he said, "when they realize that they may have hundreds or even thousands of years ahead of them. Once that truth sinks in, it will be hard to find anyone on Earth who is willing to ride in an automobile, much less a police car or a fire truck. Too much life ahead. Too much time to lose."