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The Paradox of a Long Life: A Q&A with Dr. Christopher Scott

Elixirs for the American Immortal

November 17, 2015 • By Christopher T. Scott Elixirs for the American Immortal

What does “enhancing life” mean for my field of study? I study new biotechnologies including those involved in longevity research, and thus the beginnings of the answer to this question can be framed by our fears of death and simultaneous hope for a long, fruitful life. Over the years, various strands of biotechnological research have sought to extend our lives, including the search for an anti-aging gene and the subsequent turn to longevity research, which I will explore in a future blog post.

But after decades of this work, several sobering facts remain: While the average length of our lives has increased enormously over the past century, the total length of the human lifespan—that is, the number of years the oldest people are living—is still around 122 years. And there are real questions about whether we should be working to lengthen our lives without making strides to improve the quality of health in old age.

Today, many Americans live into our eighties, which means that we begin to experience the illnesses of aging relatively late, as this graphic shows. 

But the older you are, the more likely you are to get sick. The graphic below illustrates this fundamental conundrum: if our average lifespans increase without simultaneous improvements to our health, the diseases of old age would consume more and more of our lives. 

The issue of suffering in old age is now the focus of technologies designed to enhance our life as it ends. This “longevity research” could be considered the newest iteration of enhancing life technologies—connected deeply to what some call a moral imperative to portray aging as the ultimate enemy of humanity.

The rejection of getting old isn’t new, of course. Four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon criticized doctors for ignoring the potential longevity of life, asserting instead that this was the noblest goal of medicine. But there is a deeper, psychic hook with longevity research. The fact that we all will die brings up the notion of enhancing life in the face of human finitude. For my research, this question becomes: how do we want to use technology to enhance a life that will eventually end?

As we live longer and longer, some are fearful that our extended years will be spent in decline. Today, we die because we are living long enough to experience the diseases of aging, like dementias and stroke. Zeke Emanuel, Barak Obama’s former health advisor and a bioethicist, put it best in a 2014 article for The Atlantic titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” He wrote: “Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible. This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American Immortal.” 

I’d recommend a few other essays on this topic, including the philosopher Daniel Callahan’s Dying After your Time, Atul Gawande’s Letting Go, and the late neuroscientist Oliver Sach’s My Own Life.

Zeke Emmanuel has his finger on something important. And that, quite simply, is recognition that technology has its limits. Will technology help us achieve immortality? Probably not. Will technology help us live longer, healthier lives? We know that it already has, but this frontier science may come with downsides.

For my work, this raises a crucial question: Should we be pursuing research on life extension that could mean more suffering at the end of life? I’ll explore the challenges and rewards of longevity research in a blog post later this week.

Read a Q&A with Christopher Scott about his research here.

Photo courtesy of Robert Agthe via Flickr (Creative Commons license).