What If No One Ever Died?
What If No One Ever Died? If I said, should we invest in the science of aging to help people live healthier, longer lives, maybe some people would say yes and some people would say no. But if I said, should we invest in fighting cancer or dementia or heart disease, probably everybody would say yes.
But all three of those and so many other diseases are correlating with aging and fighting. Each manifestation of aging is like playing whack a mole. One thing doesn’t get you. The other thing will. And so, it certainly makes sense, at least to me, that we should try to address the underlying biology of aging. Human life expectancy is getting longer in 1910, humans in the United States were only expected to live 40 to 50 years now in just over a century.
We’ve nearly doubled that with an average lifespan of almost 80 years. And according to futurist Jamie Metzl, we’re working on technology to extend that even further. There’s a lot of really exciting work about sequencing, genome sequencing, people who live into their hundreds to see which is the case. Are there genetic differences between those kinds of people and everybody else? And genes instruct cells to make proteins. So, what are their genes instructing their cells to do? And can we mimic those kinds of outcomes for everybody else?
If we could mimic that for our entire population, could we stop older generations from dying off? Would our planet become crowded with people? How would family dynamics be changed? And how could our health care system become overwhelmed? Before we get to the consequences of indefinitely extending our life spans, let’s take a look at how we would do it in the first place. In just over one hundred years, we’ve considerably expanded the average human life expectancy by improving sanitation, workplace safety and, most importantly, health care.
We’ve developed treatments for life threatening injuries and we’ve eradicated some of the world’s deadliest diseases. But if we want to extend our life spans any further, we’ll need to tackle the biggest threat to our bodies aging. But first, we need to understand what aging is. And there have been some incredible work and great progress in just understanding the basic mechanisms of aging. And there’s even a debate raging about his aging one comprehensive thing.
Or is it a bunch of different parts, different systems within the human body that are aging at different rates, which is important because you don’t want to kind of have an immortal one kind of cell and a mortal other kind of cell because you’ll just be equally dead. So, there’s some really exciting science, though, about understanding how can we basically shift the way our bodies function and the way our cells function from growth mode into repair mode.
How do we put ourselves into kind of the equivalent of screensaver? Well, it’s already begun and it’s all thanks to something called CRISPR. CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats. Never heard of it. Yeah, me neither. So, let’s head back to our resident expert, Jamie Metzl, to explain it.
It’s an ability to cut and paste, like on Microsoft Word. The genome, the genome is the source code of life. And you can cut it to turn off a gene. You can add genetic material, and that is what allows us to rewrite genetic code. Having said that, genetic code is incredibly complex and so people shouldn’t imagine that we can just rewrite everything. We’re in the beginning of the genome editing revolution, but it’s moving really quickly. So, if we can start editing out the genes that cause us the most problems, then one day we could theoretically live in a world where no one ever dies of old age.
Wouldn’t that be great? Well, don’t get too excited because in reality, it might not be that simple. Let’s look at the pros and cons and then we’ll see if you still think it’s a good idea. The first pro is pretty obvious we wouldn’t lose as many of our loved ones, everyone would be able to live alongside generations of their descendants. Families would have lots of support because parents could have many different grandparents, great grandparents, great grandparents and more to help raise new children.
If we all lived forever, people might care more about the future, meaning that issues like climate change would be more important to older people because they would be alive for the effects. But as Jamie said, aging is a complicated mix of things and we won’t be able to get rid of all the bad things at once. Even if we get rid of some of the deadliest aspects of aging, we might still have to deal with deteriorating bones, muscles and minds.
And that brings us to the cons. Sure, we’d all live longer, but what good is that if we’re suffering past a certain age, the older people get, the more care they would need. We might not need hospitals as much, but care facilities for older people would quickly be overwhelmed. Eventually, we would reproduce to the point that we would surpass the limits of food supplies and other resources.
At this point, there might be some push to enforce birth control and that likely wouldn’t go over well. Cities would become overcrowded and civil unrest may be more prevalent. And just to be even more of a downer, this is based on the idea of our entire planet collectively gaining access to this technology. But realistically, that’s not how it would happen. More developed wealthier nations would likely have access to this technology first, so they’d have a head start in building a population of superhumans and that could be dangerous for international relations.
The question for us is, how do we use this technology wisely and how do we use it wisely in ways that don’t divide populations the way that it’s completely happened in the past? I mean, when Europe had faster technological advancement than other countries in the world, they used that to colonize and kill people all around the world. And that was that. That divide. If we don’t want that, we need to make sure that our most sacred values guide the application of our most powerful technology.
So regardless of whether or not you think this is a good idea, one thing seems clear. If we are going to pursue some level of immortality, then we need a plan for everything that comes with it. And maybe that plan should involve some of us relocating to our neighboring red planet. But that’s a story for another.
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