Who wants to live forever
If we can’t love forever
Forever is our today
Who lives forever anyway?
–Queen, from “Who Wants to Live Forever”
About 10 years back I read a fascinating and creepy novel called Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, the same author who wrote the wonderful Remains of the Day. In Never Let Me Go, a medical breakthrough has been discovered which allows people to live more than 100 years. The medical breakthrough? A class of cloned humans has been created who are used exclusively for the purpose of being organ donors that enable the others’ extended lives. The book is a vampire’s dream and a medical ethicists’ nightmare. And interestingly, it may be weirdly prescient for the science that is going on today for those people who seemingly want to live forever.
Definitely an upgrade from harvesting organs from people, a recent article in the Guardian spoke about scientists’ first success creating a complete and functional organ in a living animal using reprogrammed cells. Apparently the scientists were able to create a working thymus in a mouse by flipping a switch in his tiny mouse stem cells to create the organ. I guess we will not see a sequel to Never Let Me Go featuring mice, as it does not appear the cloning step is necessary at this point.
A lot of regenerative medicine is focused on helping sick people live healthier lives, presumably for the purpose of living out their normal life span. For this we have scientists trying to create a replacement pancreas for diabetics and replacement hearts for those whose birth defects or heart attacks are likely to significantly reduce their life span. But there is another group of scientists whose efforts are not targeted toward living to 100, or thereabouts; instead their sights are set on helping people live forever. And those scientists are being funded by the technology entrepreneurs that have not just the will, but the money to live forever, and that is producing some interesting if weird work.
The cover of Newsweek on March 13 had a graphic of a skull with a headline that said, “Never Say Die – Billionaires, Science and Immortality.” I had to pick it up, because it struck me as so interesting to consider that living forever was a luxury of the rich. Of course that is true, because most people nowadays do not save enough money to retire at 65 and live well, let alone live forever.
Have you seen that TV commercial where people select a length of ribbon that shows how much money they think will need to retire and how long that money will last? The one where they are particularly bummed out to find that they are totally SOL – that their retirement savings will last them, at best, until a week from Thursday? Yeah, that one.
Well if you watch that commercial, the idea that you have to be a billionaire or close to it to enjoy living forever starts to seem kind of rational. I guess that’s why the people pushing for immortality medicine (or at least super-longevity medicine) are people like Peter Thiel (goal is to live to 120) and Larry Ellison (finds the concept of accepting his mortality incomprehensible) and especially overachiever Sergei Bryn (hoping to “cure death” through investing in Calico, a Google spinoff company). I guess the good news is that the billions of dollars these individuals will invest in their various anti-aging and/or anti-death initiatives will ultimately trickle down to the masses, if we can afford to use them.
In the meantime, good news for the unwashed masses and non-billionaires among us: it appears that Advil and Motrin reduce aging, and at only pennies a pill!
In an article in the January 1, 2015 issue of The Atlantic called Living Longer, Dying Differently, author Ann Rice, of vampire immortality fame, was quoted as saying, “We’re seeing death in a new way. Instead of taking it for granted, the people I know see it as a personal catastrophe. I get emails from people who are actually surprised that someone has died. They regard it as an injustice. I understand their feelings, I get it, but this is a fairly new perspective on death. Nobody in the 1900s would have regarded death as a personal catastrophe. They would have mourned and might have been grief-stricken, but they saw death all around them.”
Talk about out-of-the-box thinking! If tech entrepreneurs can view death as injustice rather than inevitability, perhaps they can establish new science to make it so, just as they have created other inventions no one ever thought possible. Certainly those who expected to die in their mid 40s back in the 1900’s would think that living to the current U.S. average life span of approximately 78 years would be a miracle. And they would likely be equally impressed with mobile phones and electric cars and the Internet.
I guess the question is whether living to 120 or 300 or forever is going to be fun. If you listen to comedian Dennis Leary, he talks about those last few years of life being the “the ten worst years, the ones at the end; the wheelchair, adult diaper, kidney dialysis years.” By the way, Leary’s quote comes from a routine about how much he loves smoking, so he is not exactly the poster boy for good health (but he is damn funny and the routine is HERE—heads up: extreme swearing if you’re the sensitive type (and yes, I’ve quoted this before–it makes me laugh, so sue me).
There is that old saying, “Money can’t buy happiness,” but it might buy enough comfort and new organs to make super old age tolerable or even pleasant for a while, especially if we can use solve the problems Nora Ephron so perfectly articulates in her book, “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” a story about the trials and tribulations of women and aging. Would women want to live to 120 or longer if they are going to look like Carol Kane’s character Valerie in The Princess Bride? Damn, the pressure is bad enough in middle age. I guess this is why the money for immortality is coming from men—no one seems to care as much about the state of men’s necks or what gravity wreaks on their bodies.
The trick, of course, will be not just creating longevity, but enabling high quality of life for that extra stint. Dmitry Itsikov, a Russian tech entrepreneur, says in the Newsweek article that he wants to live to 10,000 so he “will finally have 10,000 years for numerous hobbies.” That’s so ambitious! I’d settle for an 8-day week so I can get my errands done. But of course I’m secretly hoping for more—that the billionaires’ battle with father time will win out like the Giants beat the Royals in the last World Series. I just hope that one of the things they are working on is height loss in later age—I just can’t imagine living 40 years longer and getting 40 years shorter.
Postscript—I have been unfortunately all too focused on death this last week, I’m afraid, and not in a humorous way. It’s one thing to use science to increase life span and another thing entirely to eliminate premature death due to accidents and terrible misfortune. This week I became aware of the sudden and unexpected deaths of two people I know and who were far too young to die. Both had such wonderful potential ahead of them, even if they simply lived lives of normal length. To have those lives cut short is a travesty. Rest in Peace Eloi Vasquez and Ferolyn Powell. You will be missed by many.