David Brooks recently wrote (June 3 NY Times) about the possibility that, if current research pans out, we will be able to live much longer lives. No, this is not about finding a cure for heart disease or a vaccination for cancer. Without going into the details Brooks summarizes, it’s about intervening to dramatically slow the aging process itself. He quotes a researcher who says, “. . . We are on the verge of a breakthrough.” We may soon be able to live longer, healthier lives – at least, if we live long enough for the research to be completed, approvals made, etc. It’s more likely that our kids and grandkids will be the beneficiaries.
What interests me the most is not the research, but rather the question of whether this intervention is a good idea. Do we want it to happen?
The obvious answer is, “Yes, of course! Who would not want to live a longer, healthier life?” That question is rhetorical – or maybe not.
Let’s begin by considering possible objections – a process called “critical thinking” that I learned about in college.
We are clearly heading into a horror show, so let’s avoid what we can’t prevent. Climate change is causing damaging weather, disrupted farming resulting in food shortages and massive migration, rising sea levels, etc., etc. Wouldn’t it be easier to avoid all this – by dying? We do what we can on our way out the back door – recycle, eat less meat, drive an electric car (if we are still able to drive) – but mainly, wish the youngsters good luck, and leave as gracefully as possible.
At the same time, political acrimony is increasing, nationally and internationally. People are getting bombed or shot, and folks are predicting the end of American democracy. Fifteen percent of Americans think our government is controlled by Satanists who kidnap children and drink their blood. What will replace democracy? Do you really want to stick around and find out, even if you have the energy to go for a bike ride after dinner with a possible blood-drinker?
Furthermore, dramatically longer lifespans most likely mean an increase in population, which would worsen global warming. And even if our birth rate is shrinking, our aging population would mean we are surrounded by old people. It will be like living in The Villages in Florida, but without enough young people to serve us in restaurants, fix our plumbing, or pay into our Social Security.
And besides, being freed from normal aging does not mean we would be free from diseases, including Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Few people want to extend life with dementia, in yourself or a loved one. Freeing oneself from diseases might mean giving up certain pleasures – think of smokers who know the risks, or people like me who enjoy our bourbon nightcap. Better, perhaps, to succumb?
Kim describes the natural arc or curve of life, featuring the awkward teen years, screwing around (for many but not me), career and family building, menopause (male and female), career peak, kids gone, retirement, and death. The period between retirement and death usually means less sex – less screwing, perhaps, but more hugging and affectionate touching and whatever that may or may not lead to.
Finally, doesn’t the prospect of death sharpen our appreciation of life? Why delay that appreciation? Do you want to be that geezer sitting on the beach muttering, “Another goddamn sunrise!”?
How do I answer these objections? After some serious thought, I applied critical thinking to my critical thinking, and I decided that I want the new treatment, and soon, please. We can use the extra time for more affectionate touching. And the life-affirming prospect of death will still be with us, and it would be best to be alive to enjoy it.
I can send you the Brooks piece, upon request.
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