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Stephen Mason Ph.D.

Living Longer...Much Longer

The Possibility of Immortality

Since the average life span appears to be getting longer with each generation, won't we soon be living for a hundred years or more?

Actually, and this will come as a great shock to many, life spans are not getting that much longer with each generation. What has happened is that medical science has progressed to the point where it's now possible to save and sustain babies born with serious physical problems. In the past, such infants would have died during their first year of life and that is what brought the mean life span down. But those who survived into adulthood lived about as long as adults live today. Just look at the founding fathers and you will see that they averaged about the same three score and ten years that people do at present. In fact, because previously only the healthiest individuals made it to adulthood, there are some researchers who contend that physical and mental fitness were enjoyed for a longer period of time in the past.

But medical science has gone about as far as it can go when it comes to preventing and/or curing disease. Indeed, if all diseases were suddenly conquered, it's estimated that only about ten years of quality life would be gained by the man in the street. After that, our bodies would wear and waste away just as they do today. But medical science is poised to go off in a different direction. Instead of trying to treat things that go wrong with age, the goal now is to treat aging itself; to try and stop the clock.

Seeing aging itself as a disorder isn't a new concept. Remember the search for the Fountain of Youth? The only difference is that now the Fountain of Youth is a very real possibility. The reasons why our lives slow and eventually stop are remarkably well understood and the means of reversing these processes are much closer than people think. So, yes, people will be living for a century and more. But it will have nothing to do with correcting birth defects at one end and keeping comatose patients plugged into machines at the other end.

The question is what's to be done with all that extra time? Curiously, mankind has devised so many different myths surrounding death that the idea of a greatly extended life span is rarely considered. When asked what one would do with a century of healthy life, the answers usually lack any degree of creativity or originality. Most people have a more-of-the-same attitude. If you retire and go fishing, well, you'd fish just that much longer...ditto with golf and bowling and needlepoint. So it isn't surprising that the idea of living to 100 isn't universally embraced with enthusiasm. It's a notion that's going to require some adjustment.

Look At It This Way
For our society at large, a Fountain of Youth will create a whole series of problems. Clearly, the system now in place - where individuals get to dip for only a relatively few years into savings, Social Security and pension funds - will have to be replaced. This will entail a lifetime of learning and participating. Effectively dropping out at 65 will be a thing of the past...but will that be seen more as a blessing or more as a curse? That will depend upon the individual. So how about you? Are you ready, willing and able to accept another chunk of life or are you content to go with one of the more traditional notions of spirits and clouds and eternal rewards in the sky. An interesting question because how you answer for the future probably says an awful lot about the quality of your life in the present.