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The unavoidable truth about avoiding death

Avoiding deathThe idea of living forever (avoiding death) is one which has been a fascination of societies for centuries. In the 1800s, the average life expectancy was just 35 years, but today’s average American man can expect to live to 75, and woman 80.

Life expectancy has more than doubled – could it do so again and what if it did?

Regenerative medicine has been practised for decades. Procedures such as knee and hip replacements effectively replace worn out body parts. Transplant surgery does the same, as does the treatment (and cure) of many cancers.

Regenerative medicine today however is fast approaching an inflection point. A point where we will be able to significantly increase longevity through advances in genetics, improved diagnostics and nanotechnology. Genetic engineering will make it possible to grow body parts from a person’s own stem cells, effectively creating a ‘spare parts’ store for our bodies.

Silicon Valley is taking it a step further. Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, wants to live to 120. He is one of a growing number of tech billionaires who want to solve one of society’s most wicked problems yet: ageing. He and a number of other Silicon Valley masterminds want to use technology to upgrade the human body, the most complex piece of machinery yet, through mechanisms such as reprogramming a person’s DNA; using ‘nanobots’ to repair our bodies from the inside out; and ‘downloading’ the content of someone’s brain so that it can stay alive long after the body which it occupies has expired.

Although all of this may sound far-fetched, so did the advent of the TV and laptop when only radios and calculators were in use. But unlike the TV and laptop, the impact of indefinite longevity is a subject we have largely avoided, in much the same manner as we avoid discussing our own death.

If living to 120 is made possible in the near future, what might we be doing and what impact would this have on the world around us?

Avoiding deathAs is the pastime of many from the older generation, complaining about the generation gap will take on amusing nuances. “Back in my day we used to actually talk to each other via social media; we could like each other’s comments…now we’re all merely wandering around mute faced with wristbands that read our micro-expressions. This generation doesn’t understand hard work because the robots are doing all the lifting and thinking for us. They aren’t in touch with themselves and have to look at their wrist to tell them how they’re feeling.” In addition, technological developments will mean that many traditional labour and automated tasks have been replaced, allowing people to focus their collective minds on solving some of the world’s most wicked problems such as poverty. We would have time to develop a cognizance that has only been experienced by a few.

But there is a flip side. Worryingly, our taxation system would come under extreme pressure, having not been geared toward supporting a very large aged and retired population of ‘baby boomers’. If we don’t have the taxation revenue, we won’t be able to build the infrastructure needed to support the population. The mathematics simply do not add up. Likewise, our health systems are not designed to cater for large chronic disease cohorts. Our current infrastructure (road networks, agriculture, power, water etc.) is already struggling with current populations and urbanisation, having been based on standard assumptions for birth and death rates. These would quite literally ‘break’ if there is a significant increase in longevity. In many ways, living ‘forever’ may sound appealing, but in the ageing conundrum, are we simply birthing a plethora of even more wicked infrastructure; healthcare and technology problems for the next generation of engineering service providers to solve?

As a community and society, we don’t like having discussions about death and dying. We avoid and ignore the topic until it’s too late. Is the same true of longevity? Quite clearly, where longevity is concerned, it is no longer a question of “could we” but “should we”. With death fast becoming something we can avoid, asking whether we should will be unavoidable .

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11 replies »

  1. Well, people may live 120 years in next 5 decades or so, may be 150/200 years by end of this century. the real issue will be the current pension/super system in place. people expect today to retire by 65years or say by 70years in a worst case scenario, how then the system will be able to cope with this scenario wherein the working age population will be less than the pensioners. It should be noted that the government is struggling with present day healthcare/pension system.

  2. “Quality of life” is more important that quantity. Self esteem, happiness and health are the basic elements of life and we all need to be seen as relevant within society and not a burden. Unfortunately longevity is not for all, only for those that can afford it, our health systems can’t manage now so how will it cope with a ever increasing aged population?

  3. No – since we all are “thrown away” by employers and society alike at some stage
    Yes – only if one is allowed to continue making a positive contribution to society

  4. Leaving aside the obvious problems with overpopulation of the planet there is one aspect of ‘living forever’ and its impact on the human race that is mostly overlooked but probably the biggest long-term danger.

    Even if we can cure all illnesses and stop the ageing process in its tracks, sooner or later everyone, living anything close to what we would consider a normal lifestyle today, would succumb to a fatal accident.

    If you know that the only way you can die would be as a result of an accident then it surely follows that the natural reaction of the vast majority of people would be to avoid any activity at all that would put them at any risk of a fatal accident.

    Without a certain amount of risk there can be no progress. We could well end up with a planet full of people too scared to leave their bedroom. How would that impact the workplace?

  5. Perhaps we need to think about the taxation revenue barrier from a different perspective. If longevity increases, then maybe our current thinking of productivity may change. As a result, tax revenue may also increase…also, just because we all may live longer doesn’t mean we’ll be using infrastructure the same way as we do now!

  6. Even if we ‘extend’ life, death is still inevitable. If that’s so, our time is finite…which makes really living of extreme importance. Not just existing. Not just going through the motions. We should all confront our inevitable death and decide, after doing so, how we want to live and what legacy we want to leave. A great read…even if it only serves to make us acknowledge death.

  7. Death and taxes. Life is a finite journey with a start and an end. Knowledge of these very limits to our life on this earth give us our spark for love and fulfilment. There is limited space here. We don’t it filled with nothing but doddery old people holding up the train.

  8. Death of your physical body is inevitable but not so of your spirit. If you body is going to die but your spirit lives forever, why spend so much time on your body and be so concerned about how long you are going to live. If your spirit is going to live into infinity it becomes immaterial how long you are on earth especially if you compare 80 or 120 years with infinity. The Bible teaches us that we should not fear him that can destroy your body but fear him that can kill your soul and fear Him who determines your spirit. Focus on Him who gives us life in abundance and life with him until eternity.

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