Saturday, March 28, 2009

On Super-Extended Life Spans

Dr Oz's last session on Oprah was quite fascinating. It was about living longer, perhaps 120 years or more — in good and vigorous health, of course.

Early in the show Dr Oz introduced a guy from the audience who was living on a calorie-restricted diet of about 1950 calories per day. He ate really good stuff and Dr Oz said that he could live to be 150 years old. While I don't think this was a serious prediction, it did indicate that this guy was onto something. Apparently, when you don't eat the amount that is considered to be enough calories, your body optimizes itself in some way and becomes extremely efficient (these are my words but they capture the idea), and, all things being equal, one should expect to live longer and to be in good health while doing so. If I were being lighthearted and shallow, I might ask, "What's the point of living if you can't eat?", but that would be superficial and a tiny bit flippant, so I'll resist. I certainly do see the point of being healthy and filled with energy, and that seems to be the key idea.

The show went on to reveal the latest in medical technology: how organs can be regrown in the lab and so on. These organs would be grown from one's own cells within weeks and would, therefore, not be susceptible to rejection. The idea behind organ regrowth is that, as healthy as one might be, as we learn more about generally treating ourselves better and therefore living longer, things can still go wrong, and parts may needed to be replaced in our bodies just as in our cars. Apparently, scientists getting closer and closer to be able to be doing just that.

Of course, whether we're talking about eating a really healthy diet or growing organs in the lab, this can only be done at significant cost, especially the latter. That's a major sticking point, isn't it? While the well-to-do might be able to afford the latest and greatest life-saving technologies, what about the rest of humanity? And what about the third world where obtaining the most basic sort of medical intervention is problematic? I am here referring to cheap and ubiquitous vaccines and low tech therapies? Shouldn't the focus be on achieving a basic standard of life for all rather than super-extended life spans for a few?

While I'm sure that in some way, we all do benefit from high tech advances, I find it hard to buy into the idea that's it's necessarily a good thing to focus on increasing longevity in such a quantum fashion. While I am terribly appreciative that we now live somewhat longer and in somewhat better health than previous generations, these gains have been slow and minimal, and, therefore, society has been able to cope fairly well. In point of fact, much what we have achieved so far is the elimination of infant and child mortality, which has been enough to increase average life expectancy by quite a bit: largely because more people are living into adulthood than previously. If you are skeptical of this, I challenge you to browse around some pioneer cemeteries and note the heart-wrenching number of markers that memorialize dearly departed children and youth.

When it is said that we are designed to live to be 120 or even 150 years old and that science will soon make that possible, I am not one to leap to my feet in unadulterated enthusiasm, for I foresee problems. I have already mentioned one: very unequal access. If the average world citizen cannot afford to participate in such advances, I'm not going to get too excited about them. Impressed yes; excited no.

I also foresee tremendous social implications. Can you imagine entering the workplace in your twenties and sighing contentedly because you would be able to retire in ... oh ... about a hundred years? Isn't that what it comes to? If you live longer, you'll have to work longer to provide for yourself. That's a problem, both for the poor hundred year-old dude who has to get up and drag his sorry self to work as well as for the twenty year-old kid who can't find a job because the workplace is clogged with oldtimers.

When I caught Oprah's very next show, I beheld a great irony. It was about the great obesity epidemic. Here were people seemingly doing their best to drive themselves into an early grave by eating copious quantities of unhealthy food while refraining from anything resembling physical exertion. While I'm not picking on these people because we all have our own foibles to contend with and crosses to bear, I do find the juxtaposition of the two shows to be tremendously ironic. There are so many problems to solve about living in the here and now, that it seems somehow premature to wax excited over the carrot-stick of quasi-immortality that is being dangled before of us.

Humans have always dreamed of immortality, but in the end, life is much more about living our hours and days than about worrying about the years and decades. It's a series of passing moments, and the best attitude seems to be to appreciate and maximize those. Having said that, I have no death wish and greatly desire to be around for a few more decades yet, so I certainly understand fascination with increasing our longevity. I just don't get too caught up in the hoopla.

15 comments:

jinksy said...

Beautiful Spring look to your blog today, and a brilliant post to go with it.
Let me know if the scientists manage to grow new scalps complete with luxurious hair - I wouldn't have to contemplate wig-dom! x

Janet said...

I like the Spring redecorating too.

Very thoughtful post today. The idea of living another 100 years doesn't appeal to me at all. I am intrigued by the idea of regrowing organs for replacement, but as you said, until everyone in the world has equal access to healthcare (the common cold shouldn't kill!), science needs to focus on that rather than on exotic advancements for the privileged few.

simplycol.com said...

I missed this Oprah episode. What kind of nags at me though, is that I have always enjoyed the shows that featured Dr Oz and the topics he discussed. Most, it seemed, involved good sense and good ideas. I have to wonder now though... are they overdoing it somewhat.. sliding into the sensational realm a bit. Is Dr. Oz heading the way of Dr. Phil? Hope not.

Ginnie said...

Now I know that Spring is here... your new format tells me. As to living that long...I think we would have to go back to the old idea of family members caring for their elders...who could possibly afford that many years?

Ruth said...

It has been known for some time that people who eat a healthy low calorie diet over a lifetime do not age as quickly. People have trouble staying on a low calorie diet for a few weeks so I do not see many people their extending life in that way. In my work, I see that the brain is what atrophies, degenerates, has strokes, gets dementia. Did they talk about growing new brains? Or what about new skeletons?..I wouldn't want to live to 150 with a degenerating frame. Interesting post.

david mcmahon said...

I thought all bloggers were immortal! A friend of mine told me I simply had to come and read this post ......

Mary said...

AC,

Love your springy new look. Snowdrops are blooming here and tulips and daffodils are about 3 to 4 inches high. They will be blooming before long.

Your post was very interesting. I missed that show. I think that in some cases, this could be a benefit, but don't think it should be used just for longevity. There are pros and cons to everything but a good healthy diet and proper exercise can take us a long way.

Enjoy your Sunday.
Blessings,
Mary

Pearl said...

So much to rejig if even some people lives significantly longer. Might make daycare easier? People looking after their great great grandkids...

love the spring template's return.

Lorna said...

I'd like to just give up and let you do my thinking for me.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

I don't see the point of living to 150. If it was more a reality there would be so many old people. We would be 100 years beyond our child bearing years and out contact with the young. Where would we all stand. How big a pension would we need to retire in our sub 100 years. Society values would have to change. Perhaps we would come to accept suicide as a valuable alternative.

Perhaps, I am cynical. I already feel I have outlived my usefulness. God is only punishing me with having to endure life, ad nauseum.

Maybe the sun will come out and change my mind:)

Janet said...

I'm very honored to have been post of the day with you. (At the risk of taking undue credit, I sent David your way.)

Moannie said...

There are just too many inponderables. Would we be given a choice? By whom? We can hardly feed the world now, imagine if we all lived that long. As it is the scientists are getting way ahead of themselves...find a cure for the common cold and all cancers and we'll do the rest.

Thought provoking POTD

Cathy said...

AC. We sure of are of a mind on this.

I know people my age who are so interested in prolonging their lives that their obsessive exercising and dietary focus saps their ability to be in the moment.

(In my humble opinion ;0)

Cathy said...

Ahem. That would be: We certainly are of a mind on this.

And 'yes' . . I am losing mine ;-D

dabrah said...

A very thought provoking blog. I hadn't actually made the connection between the reduction in child mortality and the increase in the average life-span, but of course it makes sense. Do I want to live to 150? To be honest, I don't think so. But it's interesting to think that if we had a lifespan of 150 years, I'd be a good bit short of middle aged.