Life Keeps Getting Longer, but at a Cost

December 27, 2007 02:25 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
New techniques and research promise ever greater longevity; but there are dangers, not the least of which is that a protracted life becomes what one scientist calls “a living death.”

30-Second Summary

In the 20th century, the average lifespan in the developing world doubled.

Life expectancy continues to rise today, at a rate of 2.2 years per decade, and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku recently hypothesized that “ultimately, the ageing process itself could be slowed down or even halted.”

One path to the fountain of youth pursued by a number of Americans at present is the reduced-calorie diet, which slashes the calorific intake by as much as a third.

Although these austere diets have been shown to work for animals, there have been no conclusive trials on human subjects. Nonetheless, if the news reports are to be believed, calorie restriction is increasingly popular.

But sometimes it takes a scientist to point out the obvious. A postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley suggests, extrapolating from work done on rats, that near-starvation could lead to depression.

It may soon be possible to mimic the effects of calorie-restriction with substances such as reservatrol. But even if life is extended by relatively painless means, those in search of immortality should be careful what they wish for, argues British scientist Dr. Guy Brown.

Brown writes that the increase in lifespan seen in the modern era “has not been matched by an extension of healthy life. The additional years we gain are mostly spent with disability, disease and dementia.”

If Brown is right in his assertion that “the aged should be able to choose how to die,” then the last word on this issue was penned by Irish satirist Jonathan Swift back in the 18th century.

In Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travel” the hero encounters the immortal Struldbrugs, who are condemned to drawn-out infirmity: “They had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying.”

Headline Links: Extended life, a potentially unwelcome gift

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Background: Calorie-restriction and reservatrol

Calorie-restriction diets
Resveratrol and red wine

Opinion & Analysis: The life extension debate

Dr. Aubrey de Grey

British research and Cambridge University geneticist, Dr. Aubrey de Grey is an advocate for life extension who, despite the apparent wildness of his claims, is part of the mainstream scientific debate on this issue.
Dr. Guy Brown

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Reference Material

The Immortality Institute

The Immortality Institute, based in California, is a non-profit organization that describes its mission as “to conquer the blight of involuntary death.”

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