Would you like to live 1,000 years? According to an article in Smithsonian magazine, a Silicone Valley biologist named Aubrey de Grey insists that it is possible, even that someone living now will do so. It is all about stopping the aging process in human cells and replacing them when they do malfunction. Most research biologists disagree with him, but what if his predictions are right or anything like right?
De Grey and others working in this field treat aging itself as a disease to be cured. Due to various possible causes, problems in cell reproduction lead to changes that create senescence or aging. If these problems are prevented or if new cells can be introduced to replace damaged ones, aging can be eliminated or greatly delayed.
To date, such hypotheses are not supported by research data, but millions of dollars are being spent to support such research. Many people would pay generously for pills or potions from any fountain of youth that might be discovered. More traditional scientists point to the need to find cures for obvious diseases and dysfunctions.
The upper limits of aging are being pushed back — have been for a couple of centuries — especially in the more economically prosperous countries of the world. In this country, the second fastest growing population category is centenarians. Those in their 80s are first! Reasons for the rapid rise in lifespan are many: better sanitation, better nutrition, personal hygiene, control of disease vectors like mosquitoes, preventive vaccines, antibiotics, advanced surgical technology, advances in the treatment of cancers, heart attacks and strokes.
The results of an aging population are both positive and negative. Society is enriched by a large number of experienced, knowledgeable people, many with strong leadership abilities. Those who are retired contribute uncounted hours of voluntary service. The types of illness and disabilities that they have challenge them and care systems at every level. Health care and solutions to issues of daily living are expensive. As the saying goes, "Getting old is not for sissies." This applies to seniors and their entire society.
The predicted possibility of a 1,000-year lifespan for everyone probably is absurd, but it raises questions. Where to put them all? Much of the earth is uninhabitable and part of it is already over-crowded. How long can the planet sustain an ever-growing population with food and drink and absorb their waste? The earth is a spaceship with limited resources or capacity to produce more. As competition for limited space and resources grows, how long will it be before warfare destroys everything?
A more important question is "Who wants to live 1,000 years?" A recent survey asked respondents whether or not they wanted to live to be 120, which is now considered about the upper limit for humans. The vast majority said no. Why? Rip van Winkle awoke from a 20-year sleep totally out of touch with his world. Even though we might be wide awake, the world changes rapidly. It is not easy to keep up.
Most seniors must cope with disability, disease and loss. That is hard work. It knows no respite, holds no promise for an earthly end. Those who propose to stop the aging process rather blithely declare that all diseases and disabilities will be cured along the way. The upper limit of the human lifespan is unlikely to rise much higher than it is now even though more people are pushing toward that limit. Until ways are found to add life to longer years, it is not necessarily a great blessing to add years to our lives. Such enrichment is a worthy goal, but some do get weary while waiting.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.