Who wants to live forever?

The life expectancy in Europe for newborn babies is around 79 years for males and 84 years for females. That’s about 10 years longer compared to people born in 1970. But what if life expectancy explodes during the next 50 years?

Unless you die by an external force, say a car crash or a bullet, or by a terminal disease, you'll typically die of old age. But what does dying of old age actually mean?

Aging, in and of itself, is not a cause of death. When we say someone died of old age, what we in fact mean is that someone died as a result of an illness (like pneumonia) or an event (like a heart attack) that a healthy, stronger person would likely have survived.

Moreover, what claims the lives of older people is typically an accumulation of many things. As we get older, we're more likely to get heart disease and cancer.

In a famous TED Talk “A roadmap to end aging” Aubrey de Grey explains that even if we don't know the underlying mechanisms of aging, if we can engineer the reversal of all the major molecular and cellular changes that occur with age, we will be able to reverse aging and rejuvenate ourselves.

The proposal includes addressing seven forms of molecular or cellular damage that accumulate with age:

  • Cell loss, tissue atrophy
  • Nuclear [epi]mutations (only cancer matters)
  • Mutant mitochondria
  • Death-resistant cells
  • Tissue stiffening
  • Extracellular aggregates
  • Intracellular aggregates

Furthermore Aubrey de Grey points out that it would be suspicious if humankind wouldn’t find out anything about these “engineering problems” within the next 20 years. This would mean that if you're young and healthy now, there's a good chance you'll be around when the first wave of solutions are found that give us, say, 10-15 years of extra life. And with those extra years you could be around again for the next wave, and so on.

Potentially you could live for hundreds of years going on like this. De Grey calls this "reaching the longevity escape velocity".

Now, many people seem to have the intuition that there is something terribly selfish about not wanting to die. Or that it’s ethically questionable in aspiring to cheat death permanently. The argument is that humans aren’t meant to live forever and death of old age is a part of the natural life cycle. It’s how we give way for younger generations and it’s how we find meaning and motivation in life.

There is a certain degree of hypocrisy here, because as the philosopher Sam Harris points out, these same people typically will support curing cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and other diseases, but if you add aging itself to the list – then that’s a no-no, or at least a moral failure to accept mortality.

Personally I wouldn't have that many moral objections to getting extra years to my life. Perhaps the biggest concern here is overpopulation of our planet, but that's something we need to solve in any case and a challenge I’m fairly optimistic about.

I believe it's likely that the life we have been given – this life – is in fact all we get, meaning that there probably isn't a miraculous afterlife waiting for us after death. To me this thought gives a lot of motivation to live in the moment and take out the maximum of this life – a life I would gladly extend with a couple of hundreds years if possible.

Finally, can’t resist to paste in a link to this awesome music video by Queen: