Pretty well exactly a year ago (seems like a lifetime ago), I wrote a blog post called “Embracing those twenty bonus years“. I’ve borrowed the same cartoon for this post because its message seems to say it all; at some point our bodies age. That’s just the way it is. Unless. Unless the scientists – true believers – who have recently published books about their research on aging really are onto something. They are convinced that aging is really a disease that can be treated, in other words that aging is curable! But, I have to ask myself, if a large proportion of the population is going to reach, say, 120 or how about 150, is this really what we want?
Welcome to the world of the biology of aging – biogerontology. I encourage you to read about their work in these entertaining reviews of their books, Andrew Steele’s Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old and David Sinclair’s Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To, or go further and read the books. (Feel free to borrow our copy of Sinclair’s Lifespan.) The theory shared by both these authors is that the aging process we’re all so familiar with can be treated as just another disease looking for a cure. And a cure is what they are working on. Before you get your hopes up – or perhaps your fears, the idea isn’t that death is taken out of the equation. But – and it’s a big but – the hope on the part of these scientists is that “old age” will become a healthier and far longer one, predicated on the idea that new treatments will slow down or virtually eliminate the aging process, thereby keeping the typical diseases of old age at bay.
I will leave the details of their theories and research work to you as your homework assignment. Let’s skip ahead to thinking about what a world might look like if people could live fruitful lives well into their 100s, increasing the number of years people can live purposeful, healthy active lives by decades.
A few things come to mind with respect to this intriguing scenario. One is that when I was in my 30s, 40s, and 50s it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t have the same amount of energy and focus I had then when I got to my 70s. What would change?! Hmm, now that I can speak from experience, it turns out that things do change. So, as these in-the-prime-of-their-lives researchers envision extending the population’s life expectancy by decades, I just hope they take the changes in aging for even the healthiest of oldsters into consideration.
Many questions popped into my head while reading about the laudable goals of these researchers. Maybe you have a few of your own.
- Will people be able to work until they’re 100 and then retire?
- More importantly, will they have to work until they’re 100 because they can’t afford not to? Oh, please say no!
- Will our economies be able to generate employment opportunities for young people as older people keep their jobs for 20-30 additional years? Maybe more?? This is already a challenge as people increasingly work well past 65. It’s also already a challenge as technology replaces more and more jobs.
- What will people do for all those extra years of healthy old age? How will they and their governments ensure they have enough money to be self-sufficient for very long post-employment years? I wouldn’t want to be a pension fund manager in this scenario.
- How will families manage the expanding relationships of 5-6 generations instead of 2-4 generations? Most children could have 4 grandparents, 8 great-parents, and 16 great-great grandparents, maybe more. Having such an overpowering presence of oldsters among children and young adults will result in significant changes in social dynamics.
- Most new technical innovations come from young minds, unencumbered by the status quo. How will those critical voices of change be heard if an overwhelming percentage of the population is OLD (and set in their ways)?
- Similarly, what political change would be possible if the overwhelming proportion of voters were OLD (and set in their ways)?
- If people will no longer develop the diseases caused by the current (natural) aging process, like heart disease and cancers, but they’re still going to die at some point far down the road after living a healthy, active life for 150 years, what will they die of? My husband suggested maybe skydiving or snowboarding will get them!
I applaud these researchers for wanting to find ways for people to be able to age with healthy hearts and minds, but I’m not at all sure how this proposed greatly extended lifespan is supposed to work. It strikes me that there would be a lot of kinks to work out for public policy wonks, to say the least. I’ll just stick with my naturally aging body, doing very little, slowly. And contentedly.
Your food for thought for the day. 🙂