IMAGINE THIS SCENARIO: anti-aging medication becomes publicly and widely available, extending people’s lifespans to 150 years, most of which is spent in peak physical state (think our early to mid-20s). Given the accelerating progress of anti-aging research – perhaps driven by our instinct to prolong our existence as long as possible – such a future is not unbelievable, nor is it entirely unappealing. Humans have always been fascinated, yet cautious, with the idea of living longer as if it is a desirable taboo, from the Greek myth of Tithonus or J.R.R. Tolkien’s long-lived elven race to dystopian science fiction stories à la Wall-E or Altered Carbon. An important question we should ask ourselves, then, is not whether we can or should implement anti-aging medication, but whether living longer will actually improve our lives and societies. Moreover, we must also come to terms with the idea of living longer as taboo.


Let’s first address the common concern that we shouldn’t interfere with the aging process because it is ‘hubristic’. We may feel uncomfortable with the idea of interfering with the aging process; after all, we say, it’s part of the natural life cycle: we are born, we grow old and sick, we die. However, if many chronic diseases arise from an aged and broken body, then is preventing aging really different than any other medical procedure? If anything, anti-aging would be a rather effective form of preventative medicine. Stopping aging would be no less unnatural or ‘hubristic’ than an organ transplant or dialysis. Besides, medical advances have already increased global life expectancy by 20 years since the 1950s – one purpose of medicine is to extend life, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Thus, the question of whether or not we should implement anti-aging medication ought to depend on other avenues.

From an economic point of view, anti-aging medication would present several benefits. In 2013, Canada spent a whopping 45% of all healthcare costs on caring for patients over 65 years of age (an average of $11,598 per person). By stopping or slowing down aging, we can significantly reduce these costs as well as decrease the incidence of age-related chronic diseases. Additionally, the more time people have being healthy, the more productive workers of society they are likely to be, further fueling the economy.

On the other hand, anti-aging medication presents potential dire consequences to society and the world at large. We are already witnessing the impact of increased population: living spaces diminish as apartments stack atop one another, rates of homelessness and inequality increase, and we produce more waste than ever, worsening the climate change crisis. Implementing anti-aging medication will likely exacerbate these trends at an exponential rate. And how will the medication be distributed; who will get to live longer first? It is likely that the gap between the rich and poor will not only increase but also play a critical role in access to anti-aging. Indeed, like how unequal access to healthcare in the US has now resulted in a 13-year difference in life expectancy between the top 10% income earners versus the bottom 10%, so too will unregulated distribution of anti-aging medication lead to increased disparities. Ironically then, it seems that by living longer, we may actually make our lives and our societies worse off, unless we directly address these issues first on a policy level that is unrelated to our life expectancy.

Most importantly, at the individual level, we must realize that life is not determined by time alone. Would having an extra 50 or 100 years truly change the way we live our lives? It could redefine how we view life – perhaps we will use the extra time to do meaningful work, spend more time with our loved ones, or take better care of our society and environment. Or perhaps not – boredom or repetition may motivate some to live differently, but humans are also habitual creatures, and we are still likely to spend our days as we always have, whether that be filled with good or bad lifestyle habits.

At the end of the day, it is not merely about how long we live, it’s about how well we live. There is no significant difference whether we are 90 or 150 years old if we do not first improve our quality of life – socioeconomically, emotionally, and mentally. Anti-aging medication will bring many benefits – at the individual and societal levels – and is perhaps necessary for an optimal healthy life, but are they worth the costs? Instead of trying to extend our physical states of being, perhaps we should take a step back and also consider what we can do in other areas of being so that we can improve our quality, and not just quantity, of life.


References:

  1. Aging: toward avoiding the inevitable. Nature Medicine. 21:1373 (2015).
  2. Niccoli, T. and Partridge, L. Ageing as a Risk Factor for Disease. Current Biology. 22(17):R741-R752 (2012).
  3. “Life expectancy.” Wikipedia. (2018).
  4. Barua, B., Palacios, M., and Emes, J. “The Sustainability of Health Care Spending in Canada.” The Frasier Institute. (2016).
  5. “Cheating Death.” The Economist. 13 August 2016.
  6. Tavernise, S. “Disparity in Life Spans of the Rich and the Poor is Growing.” The New York Times. 12 February 2016. 
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Pailin Chiaranunt

Pailin is a PhD student in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto. She works in Dr. Arthur Mortha's laboratory on creating a high-dimensional map of host-microbiome interactions in the intestine. In her spare time, Pailin enjoys traveling, reading philosophy, and dabbling in martial arts and languages.

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