When I'm 164: The Societal Implications of Radically Prolonged Lives

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"Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?" Part two in an ongoing series on longevity.

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(Reuters)

When I get older, changing my genes,

Living oh so long.

Will you still be mind-hacking valentines, 

Birthday brain-melds, transgenic wine?

If I'd been married 23 times,

Would that bother you?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

When I'm a hundred-and-sixty-four?

You'll be older too.

--Adaptation of "When I'm 64," by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney turned 70 this year. It's been odd watching him age, given that part of the Beatles' appeal was their extreme youth. How was it possible that four men under 30 years old wrote songs with such insight, while helping to guide a generation through experiments in everything from facial hair and LSD to mixing a sitar with an electric guitar?

In a way it's been stranger to watch Sir Paul not age. His skin in his face is youthfully taut (some work done, perhaps?), and his underlying baby face still shows through. He tours and leaps about on the stage like he was still 24 years old, the age he wrote "When I'm 64." His youthfulness is a testament to a century of astonishing progress in keeping people healthy longer -- through better nutrition and hygiene, and the wonders of biomedical science.

As I discussed in the first installment of this series, "How Can Bioscience Push the Limits of Lifespan?" we may be on the cusp of even greater boosts in human life expectancy thanks to discoveries in genetics and regenerative medicine (using stem cells to regrow and repair damaged or diseased tissues), and the fusion of machines and machine-produced spare parts (such as pacemakers and joint replacements). Some scientists believe that human lifespan might be dramatically increased; others that any bump that occurs will be more modest.

Whatever the actual boost in lifespan, it's worth addressing the reality that "old age" already has moved far beyond 64 -- which was considered old back in 1967, when the Beatles' song was released on St. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Now what we consider "old" is pushing 80, which gives new poignancy to the young narrator in this song asking his lover: "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?"

On the surface, the song seems whimsical, with its bouncy clarinet opening and lines like "Sunday morning go for a ride" and "You can knit a sweater by the fireside." Underneath this is the young man's unease about whether he will matter when he is old, or if anyone will be there for him.

Sir Paul needn't have worried about being needed or well fed. Yet his question is becoming poignant for many as the generation who idolized the Fab Four hit age 64 and beyond, and society is faced with millions more seniors than we have ever had before.

Even without a radical increase in lifespan the problems are mounting. Medicare funds are scheduled to be exhausted by 2024, and Social Security by 2033 unless changes are made. In part this comes from people staying alive far longer than the architects of these programs envisioned, with more needing expensive long-term treatments and high-tech care. Beyond the U.S. the rest of the world is also rapidly turning old, with the life expectancy globally at age 67, up from 32 in 1900.

So what happens if science in the near future allows our lifespans to jump more dramatically, perhaps by taking a pill that slows aging, allowing someone who is Paul's age of 70 to have the body of a 35 year old? I'm not saying this will happen, though it's enough within the realm of possibility that it's worth considering the consequences as a thought experiment.

In this spirit, I have been asking people in talks and lectures how long they want to live, providing four possible answers: 80 years, 120 years, 150 years, or forever. (I invite you to join over 30,000 people to take this survey; the survey and results are here). I also asked several thousands people taking the poll to tell me why they wanted to live to the age of 150 (which is close to 164) -- or why not.

Their answers broke down into five "upsides" to life at an advanced age like 164; and nine "downsides":

Upsides of life at 164

More time with friends and loved ones: "I want to be with my kids as long as I can," said a 35-year-old consumer health entrepreneur I interviewed for this project. "I lost my dad to heart disease and my mother to cancer when I was in my early 20s. The idea of not being there for my kids makes me want to live as long as I'm useful to them." Living for a century and a half will also allow people to be there not only for their kids, but also for their grandkids -- and their great-grandkids, or great-great-grandkids.

Geniuses would still be alive: If the average life expectancy had been 164 in the 19th century, a number of smart people would still be with us to help solve pressing problems like global warming; make great discoveries and inventions; and create new works of art. Albert Einstein would be 133 years old if he were still alive; Henri Matisse and Mahatma Gandhi would be 143; and Marie Curie would be 145.

Opportunity to know the future: Many who want to live to age 150 (or longer) are driven by a curiosity about how things turn out for society in the next 50, 100, or 1000 years?

More to accomplish in life: With extra time you could take that raft trip in Africa that you put off for all those years. You could take up gardening, scuba diving or parasailing. When you're 70 and still young, with another 90-plus years of life to go, you'll have time to get that college degree or that PhD you've always dreamed about, and to start an entirely new career or two.

Delaying or preventing the suffering of old age: Aging is the highest risk factor for most diseases. Slowing the aging process is appealing to some because it will at least delay the diseases and infirmary of growing old. "The idea of my body failing seems such a waste," said one survey respondent. "I mean, if there is a pill or something to keep this from happening, why not take it?"

Downsides of life at 164

Fear of prolonged frailty: The overwhelming reason given for not wanting to live longer than 80 was the fear of physical and mental decline. Even when people were promised a pill to slow aging, four out of five people I asked didn't want to take the risk of prolonged infirmity and did not change their vote.

The financial burden of paying for extended lives: The vast majority of people in the world make barely enough to make ends meet, with more than 2 billion people making less than $2 a day, and a billion going to bed hungry each night. Even in the United States the minimum wage is only $7.25 an hour. "I'm not interested in working for another 100 years," said a 49-year-old waitress, masseuse and single mother of two in Portland, Oregon. "I'm tired right now," she said.

Life is hard: The list of vicissitudes that life may deal out can be dispiriting -- divorce, job loss, estrangement, depression, illness, and violence. "Even if you are having a great life, the longer you live, the more chances are that something bad will happen," said a 38-year-old woman who is the Chief Operating Officer of a small biotech company I met at a science meeting. "Why take that risk?"

Wars, plagues and poverty: "I worry that if we live long enough, something terrible will happen, like a nuclear war, or floods from global warming," said a young history teacher at a high school in Cleveland, Ohio.

Overpopulation, resource depletion, and the environment: Many worry that radically extending life span would cause a ruinous increase in population, as a portion of the 57 million people a year who now die, would not. "It can't be good for the environment to add millions of people who would have died," said a 32-year-old physician in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Love and relationships: How fresh would love be if you had lived through dozens or hundreds of relationships, and had been married eight or 10 times -- or even 23 times, as suggested in the modified Beatles lyrics to "When I'm 164"?

Boredom: People who want to live past 80 years profess to have more to accomplish and learn than is possible with today's average life span. Others say they would not know what to do with the extra time.

We would cease to be human?: A number of respondents suggested that regenerating brains and tinkering with DNA to radically increase life span would push us beyond the edge of what it means to be human.

Who gets the cure?:  Unless a cheap and widely available fix for aging becomes rapidly available for all, the beneficiaries, at least at first, will be wealthy early adopters. Long-lifers have a ready answer to this: that the tech that bumps up lifespan will eventually get cheap enough for all, like cell phones and personal computers. Time will tell if they are right, or if whatever longevity tech becomes available is affordable only to a few people.

***

Even for Paul McCartney, there have been pluses and minuses to growing old. In "When I'm 64" he imagines an elder version of himself who might be insecure about being needed, but who is also living a quiet life with his lover as they spend their time knitting, going on Sunday rides, and summering on the Isle of Wight.

The real Paul had a tragic setback when his beloved Linda died of breast cancer, and also when his second marriage fell apart. On the other hand, Paul McCartney is still with us, writing music and bouncing around on stages performing hits like "When I'm 64." He even has kept his hair.



This post is part of an Atlantic series adapted from the ebook When I'm 164: The Science of Radical Life Extension, and What Happens If It Succeeds.

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David Ewing Duncan is a journalist in San Francisco. He is also a television, radio, and film producer, and he has written eight books. His most recent e-book is entitled When I’m 164: The Science of Radical Life Extension, and What Happens If It Succeeds. More

Duncan's previous books include Experimental Man: What one man's body reveals about his future, your health, and our toxic world. He is a correspondent for Atlantic.com and the Chief Correspondent of public radio's Biotech Nation, broadcast on NPR Talk. He has been a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition, and a contributing editor for Wired, Discover and Conde Nast Portfolio. David has written for The New York Times, Fortune, National Geographic, Harper's, The Atlantic, and many other publications. He is a former special correspondent and producer for ABC Nightline, and correspondent for NOVA's ScienceNOW! He has won numerous awards including the Magazine Story of the Year from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His articles have twice been cited in nominations for National Magazine Awards, and his work has appeared twice in The Best American Science and Nature Writing. He is the founding director of the Center of Life Science Policy at UC Berkeley, and a founder of the BioAgenda Institute. His website is www.davidewingduncan.com

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