How old is too old? A debate on toying with the human life span

Headlines this week trumpeted an exciting discovery: Remove old, damaged cells from a mouse and the aging process seems to slow. The mouse looks younger than other mice its age. Its kidneys and heart work better. It staves off cancer for longer.

Researchers involved in the study, published Wednesday in Nature, promptly spun out a company to try to commercialize the work.

The prospect, however remote, of being able to slow aging raises existential questions. If we could put the brakes on aging in humans, should we? And for how long?

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In other words: Should we toy with the human life span?

As it turns out, four experts on that subject gathered in New York City on Wednesday to debate that very topic in a forum sponsored by the nonprofit Intelligence Squared US.

All agreed that it’s a worthy goal to keep people healthy as far into old age as possible. But sparks flew over the concept of extending the human life span. Here’s a look at the arguments on both sides.

Life spans are long enough

  • Life’s meaning comes from its finitude. If we could live indefinitely, our decisions wouldn’t matter so much, and that’s a danger, said Ian Ground, a professor of philosophy at the University of Newcastle. “To say we address the most profound problem of life by abolishing death is like saying we’ll solve world poverty by abolishing money,” he said.
  • Much longer life spans could be a huge burden on society. “We all want to live longer. Maybe even forever. But I think the quest for immortality is a kind of narcissistic fantasy. … It’s about me. It’s not about what’s good for society,” said Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics.
  • Extending life spans will only increase inequality. “Who do you think is going to be the people living the longest? Is it going to be you? Or you? It’s going to be the billionaires living longer,” said Ground.
  • Having one generation replaced by the next allows for new ideas to take root. “There is a wisdom to the evolutionary process of letting the older generation disappear,” said Wolpe. “If the World War I generation and World War II generation and perhaps, you know, the Civil War generation were still alive, do you really think that we would have civil rights in this country. Gay marriage?”

We should fight to extend the human life span

  • There is no conflict between the individual desire to live longer and the collective good. “Hands up anyone who wants to get Alzheimer’s disease. All right. Hands up anyone who wants anyone else to get Alzheimer’s disease. Right. Think about that, right? It’s a societal good because we don’t like each other to get sick any more than we want to get sick,” said Aubrey de Grey, biological gerontologist and founder of the SENS Research Foundation.
  • Extended lives means we have more time to learn from our elders. “I grew up in a family where the women lived forever. One grandmother lived to 99. Another grandmother lived to 101. And they were inspirations to me,” said Brian Kennedy, the chief executive and president of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging.
  • We ought to give future generations a choice about how long their lives could be by developing life-extending technologies now. “We have an absolutely clear moral obligation to get this stuff sorted out as soon as possible in order to give our descendants … the choice whether or not to use these technologies. If we go the other way and we say, ‘Oh, dear, overpopulation or, you know, won’t it be boring? Let’s not go there,’ then what we’re doing is we’re condemning an entire cohort of humanity to an unnecessarily painful and unnecessarily early death,” said de Grey.
  • The societal problems we imagine with extended life spans pale in comparison to the suffering that comes from the diseases of aging. “We’ve heard about what’s going to happen when we’re 150,” said Kennedy. “Maybe we’re going to be bored. Well, you know, if you ask me, do I want to have cancer at 75? Do I want to have Alzheimer’s disease at 85? Or do I want to be bored at 110? I know which one I’m going to take.”

Correction: A previous version of this article identified the organization as Intelligence Squared instead Intelligence Squared US. 

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