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.