The first lifeforms were immortal. Even today a significant fraction of our biomass, the symmetrically dividing bacteria, are still immortal. Aging evolved early on as an evolutionary strategy optimizing various trade-offs for spreading genes. Despite our preconceived notions, it is not some fundamental natural law that all life must eventually grow old and die. Different organisms have different lifespans, optimized to their most recent stable environment. What I mean by immortality is really “potential immortality” which is the extension of our lifespan (how long we live) and our healthspan (how long we stay in a young, vibrant, and healthy state). This also goes by the name “radical life extension” in some circles. The symmetrically dividing bacteria are immortal because they remain in a state where they constantly replace and repair what goes wrong (called homeostasis). Human beings could also remain in that state if only we weren’t programmed to age and die.
Many books and blog posts have been written about the science and technology that may one day enable us to achieve immortality, while there is an extreme lack of talk about why we ought to seek immortality in the first place. While there are moral and philosophical arguments to be made, this post focuses on some of the practical arguments – on the beneficial impact extending lifespan and healthspan could have on us and our society.
Curing Aging Eliminates a Majority of Terrible Diseases we are Struggling to Solve (and probably at a fraction of the cost)
Osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer, macular degeneration, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, hearing loss, hypertension, Huntington’s disease, and neurodegenerative diseases are but a few of the more prominent conditions we all face due to growing old. The US spends billions annually on trying to understand, cure, and treat these diseases, as does the rest of the world. These are all diseases which aging either causes or severely increases the risk of acquiring. Finding a way to indefinitely extend human healthspan and lifespan – in essence finding a cure for aging – will be like finding a vaccine for all of these. An investment of one dollar in life extension research is worth hundreds in research aimed at trying to cure these other diseases.
Humanity is plagued by many diseases that have nothing to do with aging, such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika, etc… and if we could shift all or even some of the massive resources spent on diseases of aging towards these, we could rapidly rid the world of much needless suffering.
Healthcare Spending is Disproportionately Spent on the Elderly, Curing Aging Would Free Up Those Funds
Most of our lifetime healthcare spending occurs in the last few years of our lives. An estimated 43% of US healthcare costs go to the elderly. The US spends roughly 1 trillion dollars per year on healthcare. By extending average healthspan and lifespan by 2.2 years we could save 7 trillion dollars by 2050. This savings would actually be just shifting the costs to a later date, but healthcare spending could be cut nearly in half if healthspan and lifespan were extended indefinitely. The economic impact of freeing up over 400 billion dollars annually would be enormous.
Our Political, Societal, and Business Leaders Would be Wiser, Smarter, and Have an Amazing Breadth of Knowledge and Experience
Imagine electing a president who has lived for hundreds of years rather than a few dozen. Envision a president who has been a farmer, a musician, a lawyer, a computer programmer, an architect, a serial entrepreneur, a scientist, and a world renown surgeon. Imagine that this person has also dabbled in economics, philosophy, and criminal justice while volunteering for a multitude of charitable causes. The caliber of such a president would be beyond that of any leader the world has ever seen. Now imagine such a president surrounding themself with a cabinet equally experienced and wise, along with advisers who have spent hundreds of years in a particular industry or domain of knowledge.
Now imagine the same kind of people running businesses and other organizations. Imagine what the world would be like with that kind of wisdom and experience behind our human endeavors. What would we accomplish if our leaders were 10 times the people they are today? Imagine if the minimum age for running for president was 350, instead of 35?
We in the US haven’t exactly done a good job of nominating and electing the cream of the crop, but that would change if the average age of the electorate was measured in the hundreds of years rather than in the tens. Not only would we have greater leaders to choose from, but we would have the experience and wisdom to actually select them instead of being manipulated by fearmongering, lies, and fallacious arguments.
We Would Become More Incentivized to Solve the Big Problems of Our Age
Global warming, evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria through antibiotic overuse, depleting natural resources, and increasing risks of pandemics are all huge problems for society which we have been failing to adequately address. Part of why these problems haven’t been solved, even when we’re acutely aware of them, is because of our natural short-sightedness. The short term gains that come by ignoring these big problems keep us from tackling them, as well as the knowledge that we won’t be around when the worst consequences hit. Attitudes would change if our lives went on for hundreds of years. We would be around to feel the impact of our decisions made today, which would incentivize us to solve these problems before having to suffer the consequences.
Violence and Crime Would Decrease Significantly
Roughly 40% of all violent crime is committed by those between the ages of 15 and 24 (also mostly by males) despite this age group only making up around 14% of the population. Whether by evolutionary design or forced constraints, our brains leave us more aggressive and risk seeking until our mid 20’s. By radically lowering the percentage of the population going through those years, there would be an equally radical reduction in violent crime. Crime has a significant negative impact on our lives and our economic situation. There is no justice or political policy that could rival the positive impact to crime reduction pursuing radical life extension.
Society Could Become More Fair and Equitable
While some people have expressed fears that radically extending lifespan would lead to greater wealth inequality, I believe the opposite may be true. The initial fear is if the wealthy did not die they would continue to accumulate wealth and leave less for the following generations. The fear is misplaced because when the wealthy die now their wealth does not spread to the general public but instead is passed down to their heirs. Wealth locked up in families is no different than wealth locked up in immortal individuals.
If we engage in a thought experiment, we discover there are a few reasons to assume that longer lives might actually decrease wealth inequality and thus make the world more fair and equal. With our current mortal lives we only have a few decades to learn new skills and apply them to increase our standing in life. If we lived 10 times longer, we would have that much longer to develop those skills. With greater skills would come greater income.
Today it is only the upper middle class and above that have the disposable income to invest or put away for retirement. If our lives were significantly longer, the poor could very slowly put away a small amount each month. This would be useless for a normal lifespan, but over hundreds of years the poor could build up the same kind of nest egg that would generate returns to cover an acceptable living standard.
As everyone starts to be able to live off their investments, the number of people willing to work menial jobs would diminish, increasing their value in the marketplace. The poor start moving up the economic ladder and the wealthy down, accelerating innovation for replacing the expensive humans with robots and software. Today this trend is increasing the divide between rich and poor, but if we extended our lifespans these forces would lead to more people having a stake in the future of innovation so everyone would more-or-less equally benefit from the rewards of automation.
The World’s Citizens Would be Wiser and Make Fewer Societal Mistakes
Humanity seems doomed to repeat certain historical mistakes. We seem to learn the lessons of an economic mania and crash just long enough for the next generation to come in and make the same mistakes. The same political and social programs are tried over and over again despite their clear failures a generation or more ago. Writing has allowed us to pass on knowledge and ideas to the next generation, but writing cannot pass on direct experience. If we extend our lifespans and reduce the relative numbers of youths in the population, we will repeat fewer of these mistakes.
We would also save an incredible amount of money and resources not having to continually educate and raise new generations. In the US, it costs between $176,550 and $407,820 to raise a child to the age of 18. The cost of a college education has been skyrocketing. For the 2013-2014 school year, the annual cost for public institutions averaged just over $18,000 and for private was around $36,500. So 4 years of college, on average, will cost somewhere between $72,000 and $146,000. Imagine not only the financial savings but also the opportunity costs involved that would be saved by not having to constantly re-raise and re-teach humans.
The World Would Become a More Peaceful Place
A thousand years ago death was common. Frequently both mothers and babies died in childbirth, a significant amount of children died of disease early in life, and many lives ended violently. Enlightenment ideals and a better understanding of hygiene and modern science led to a decrease in the commonality of death. This caused people to become more sensitive to death. People started seeing premature death as a tragedy, as a life cut short of its full potential. Valuing life more led us to be less hasty to kill prisoners or push our children into wars. If we were to extend our lifespans and healthspans, dying would not only become far less common, but we would end up valuing other human lives even more than we do today, leading us to revolt at the very idea of cutting them short in a war or conflict. Our mutual desire to continue living and enjoying life, as well as our hypersensitivity to death would lead us to a far more peaceful world than what we know today.
All of this, of course, leads to the inevitable outcome of us having richer and fuller lives. We would be wiser and more knowledgeable. We would be kinder and more empathetic to others, in part because we could live so many different lives. We wouldn’t have to imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes for we could all end up wearing every shoe imaginable. If living a full and happy life is something of value for sentient human beings, then living a full and happy life longer is clearly something worth seeking for everyone.
Sierra, F (2016) Moving Geroscience Into Uncharted Waters. J Gerontol 71 (11): 1385-1387
US 2011 Crimes – fbi.gov
From Juvenile Delinquency to Young Adult Offending – nij.gov
How Much Does it Cost to Raise a Child? – blogs.wsj.com
Tuition Costs of Colleges and Universities – nces.ed.gov
“Reaching for Immortality” artwork by Madelyn Havelka