Updated on June 26 at 12:06 p.m. ET.
In the mid-19th century, people in the developed world entered into a Faustian bargain with the aging process. In exchange for life expectancies gaining an additional 30 years in the space of only a few generations, billions of people had to find out what it was like to be elderly.
In 2019, more people than ever before get to see their grandkids grow up. They get to enjoy a lengthy retirement, if they have the resources. The price they have to pay, however, is “the rise of heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and everything we associate with aging and growing old,” according to Jay Olshansky, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. If the life in your years is supposed to matter more than the years in your life, it might feel like modern humanity has backed itself into a corner.
Olshansky, speaking on a panel at Aspen Ideas: Health, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, said it’s time to move away from the disease-specific model of modern medicine and toward an approach that addresses the process that’s at the base of it all: aging. “The time has arrived in our modern era to stop trying to make us live longer,” he argued. “Instead, we should just focus in on health extension rather than life extension.” In an era when billionaires like Peter Thiel are investing millions of dollars in quests for much longer—if not eternal—lives, the idea that people already live long enough might feel a little radical.