Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Immortality: I Don't Think So

I’m not sure I would want to live forever, even if I could. Immortality, it just doesn’t seem right, somehow. Would I want additional years? Absolutely, as long as the quality of life was there.

Start thinking about these issues, especially you folks under thirty. You will have decisions to face for yourself and your children.

Scientists are working hard to increase the human life span. And they are making progress in a number of fields. I’m not writing a research paper, but here are a few snippets of exciting advances.

People in most western nations are living much longer than their ancestors. A century earlier, the average lifespan in the US was about forty years. Now it’s in the late seventies. The keys have been more and better food, a more nurturing society, and vastly better health care. But this is just the beginning.

Hormone therapy shows promise. Scientists have successfully slowed down the aging process in laboratory animals with a hormone known as DHEA. Insects treated with DHEA live up to 45% longer than normal. Mice treated with Melatonin live as much as 25% longer than typical mice.

Genetic engineering may also lengthen the human lifespan. By manipulating genes, the lifespan of some roundworms has been increased by a factor of six.

Biologists know that the telomere, part of the chromosome, is shortened each time the cell reproduces. When about 20% of the telomere is lost, the cell dies. However, with an appropriate enzyme treatment, the telomere can be regenerated. This opens up the possibility that the cell may be able to grow and divide for a much longer period than is presently the case.

All this is encouraging, but I have to admit as yet there is no hard evidence that advanced science can significantly increase the human lifespan. But many fields show promise, and I believe that a normal lifespan exceeding 100 years is likely for people born in the US two or three decades from now.

Okay, let’s get back to the question: Do you want to live much, much longer? Maybe not immortality, but a very long lifespan. Surprisingly, most people aren’t convinced. Immortality seems to go against the natural order of things. Who wants a world overstuffed with old geezers using up all the resources? Just look at Social Security and Medicare in this country. How are we going to support all the aging baby boomers? Something has to give. Will taxes go through the roof on young workers?

It seems to me most senior citizens will have to continue working far beyond the normal retirement age of 65. So what happens to all the young people entering the workforce? Will they have to linger in lower level positions until the seniors retire?

Sometimes I think I’m awfully glad to be living my life in the present age. But I would love to see the future unfold, if I have my health. Even with all the issues, it’s going to be an exciting time to be alive.

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