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

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


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.

Presented by

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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