Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Anti Aging Research - Science Utopia or Science Fiction?

Live Long (Avoid Risk) and Prosper?

Following up yesterday's piece on achieving healthier mice through meal-skipping, I stumbled upon this very interesting site on anti-aging, the Longevity Meme. A quick excerpt from an article I found there:

Suppose that we eliminate a majority of age-related diseases, such as cancer, and can maintain the vitality of the body indefinitely. Under these circumstances, everyone can expect an average life span of more than 1,000 years and a virtually unlimited maximum life span. Estimating a future average life span of 1,000 years is based on removing age-related mortality from current statistics: accidents and other causes of death still remain, of course. Aubrey de Grey believes that human life expectancy at birth in 2100 will be 5,000 years, however. He takes into consideration not only anti-aging discoveries but also changes in technology and attitudes as people strive to reduce or avoid risk and make dangerous activities safer.

I have read elsewhere that the average human lifespan (absent various kinds of misadventure) would be about 700 years. But either way sounds pretty good to a guy who turned 40 last August. I guess one of the assumptions here is that, along with cancer and diabetes and heart disease and just plain "getting old," we somehow eliminate all infectious disease (SARS, AIDS, etc.). What would life be like in a world where the only thing that can kill you is an accident, yourself, or somebody else? There are massive societal implications, of course. Careers, finance, family, relationships, government, religion—all would be impacted in ways that it's scarcely possible to imagine, much less predict.

But one important change we can reasonably predict would be the increase in risk-aversion that the author referred to. We would expect virtually all forms of transportation to be totally risk-free. Even the one-in-a-million threat that commercial aviation currently poses would be unacceptable. We would demand that all homes, workplaces, and public meeting places be indestructible: completely fire-, lightning-, earthquake-, and even bombproof. We might even decide to give up travel altogether in favor of staying home where it's safe. Some of us might even go so far as to shun personal relationships because of their occasional tendency to lead to violence.

There are three reasons why I believe this might happen:

1. With other causes of death out of the way, all our death-prevention thinking will focus on how not to get killed.

2. Risk aversion has historically gone up as our lifespan has increased and our own infrastructure has driven the risk of mortality down. That very infrastructure make us more risk-averse. Here's a personal anecdote that speaks to this idea: when I lived in Malaysia, I loved eating food from the hawker stalls. I liked the ones where they cooked the food on the spot. I generally avoided the ones where the food was prepared ahead of time and set out to wait for customers. Sure, I like freshly cooked food, but there was more at work than that. You would see pots of curry or pieces of chicken sitting out for hours or (who knows?) maybe even days at a time. There was apparently no enforced requirement that this food be kept warm or refrigerated, or thrown out after a certain period of time. By and large, Malaysians will eat indiscriminately from either type of stall. And by and large, my expat friends would eat only from the cooked-on-the-spot type (if they would eat from stalls at all.) Why the difference? Because of our standards of refrigeration and food service, and some general cultural grounding on the subject, we were more risk-averse to food poisoning than our Malaysian colleagues. The infrastructure (or environment, if you prefer)
that we came from made us less tolerant of that particular risk.
3. Death is less acceptable when it occurs less frequently. Compare the horror and revulsion that we feel towards Sudden Infant Death Syndrome with the attitude towards infant mortality that our ancestors of 100 years ago had. It's not that they loved their children any less, but (by necessity) they viewed the death of an infant as more to be expected, more part of the natural order of things, and more acceptable than we can really fathom.

Of course, I'm painting in very broad strokes. I'm sure there will still to be those who are not only non-risk-averse, but who are downright risk-friendly: the thrill seekers and the adrenaline junkies. In fact, risking an abrupt and premature end to a 700-year life might be considerably more of a thrill than doing the same for one of our old 80-year models. But on the whole, I think attitudes will tend towards an intensely risk-averse direction. Eventually, the major cause of death may be suicide as people grow bored with hundreds of years of not going anywhere and not having any friends.

It is beyond ironic that the very technologies that are most likely to bring about radical life extension, and thereby foster radical risk-aversion, are the same technologies that will enable humanity's grandest adventure: the exploration and settlement of the solar system and beyond. When the starships are ready to fly, will there be anyone left ready to face the challenges and dangers of space exploration?


Maybe the very old. Maybe people who are alive now (or who will be born in the next few years) who live to see those days will be the most willing to go. After all, they might be a little more risk-friendly than their progeny, remembering as they will a world in which icy roads or unprotected sex could do you in. If that turns out to be true, then those of us who are interested in subjects such as life extension, nanotechnology, and space exploration have an additional motivation to stay alive.

The future needs spacefarers. And that might very well mean us.