High-tech hope: escape from the sands of time
Life-extension movement gains momentum as baby boomers push to live longer
Ray Kurzweil plans to live forever. To that end, he carefully chooses what he eats and drinks. On top of that he keeps his weight down, exercises, and takes dietary supplements - about 250 a day.
He feels his strategy is working. Though he was born 56 years ago, a recent exhaustive physical examination revealed that his body is that of a 40-year-old, he says.
So far, so good.
Mr. Kurzweil, a successful inventor, entrepreneur, and futurist, knows even his most rigorous efforts to preserve his body won't by themselves lead to physical immortality. But his plan is to live in good health long enough, perhaps another 30 years, that future scientific advancements can take him the rest of the way.
It's a vision with extraordinary appeal. As the nation's 76 million baby boomers march toward retirement - the first boomers turn 65 in 2011 - many are beginning to cast sidelong glances at what's come to be known as the life-extension movement.
Already in 2002, Americans spent about $43 billion on antiaging products and treatments - and that figure may rise to $64 billion by 2007, according to the market research company FIND/SVP. The bodies of more than 70 people in the United States, including baseball great Ted Williams, have been frozen in anticipation of future life-reviving technology.
There's little evidence so far that any of these strategies and treatments will work, scientists point out. Even the breakthroughs of the 20th century have done little to allow seniors to live longer.Still, skeptics admit that life- extension technologies will eventually emerge. And recent advances in genetics have generated a growing faith that such technologies will appear in decades rather than centuries.
Some observers call this faith a new religion.
"These people are saying, 'I don't want to die, and I'm going to do something about it,' " says Brian Alexander, author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion." They were raised in the post-World War II era of a booming economy, grew up watching the wonders of science fiction, and were told they lived in a world where everything was going to be possible. "And then they're faced with death," he says. "That makes them angry."
There's a sense that they may be the last generation that is going to have to die, that they might just miss out on immortality, Mr. Alexander adds. "And that's going to be enormously frustrating."
Big advances in biotechnology in recent years, such as deciphering the human genome, may have also inflated expectations, says S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Chicago and an internationally recognized expert on aging.
In some ways, the current movement echoes the early 20th-century eugenics movement, he says, which followed scientific advances in the understanding of genetics and also sought to perfect humans through genetic manipulation."When we acquire the ability to modify something that kills us, we become giddy and begin to believe that if we can modify this, we can modify that," says Dr. Olshansky, coauthor of the book "The Quest for Immortality." "And that has always been the belief that we can modify aging."
Today, "we're getting giddy again," he adds.
While it's true that the average life expectancy of an American rose from 47 years to 77 years during the 20th century, experts on aging point out that most of that increase was due to reducing deaths at early ages. The upper limit hasn't really changed. "A hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, there were people who made it out past 100 years of age," Olshansky says. "If you brought someone from 5,000 years ago into the present and gave them the lifestyles we have today, they would live equally long. We haven't changed at all biologically."
Even today's medical advances may be overstated. Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Laurie Garrett has pointed out that the invention of antibiotics and other 20th-century medical "marvels" have contributed less than 4 percent to the total improvement in life expectancy since the 1700s. Instead, she calculates, longer average life spans are due to better basic public-health measures, including providing clean water, sewage systems, and better nutrition for the poor.
The life-extension argument, then, really centers on views of the future, the potential for breakthroughs, and the speed with which they might arrive.
"Everything they say about life extension is going to become true - and we're all going to be dead by then," says Alexander, who's been called a "fence sitter" on the question of life extension. "It may be 100 years, 500 years, who knows when it's going to happen. But there is a picture emerging now that there will be a thing called radical life extension, and people will live to be a couple of hundred years or more."
But life-extension advocates say that Alexander's time frame is much too long. It fails to take into account the fact that the pace of scientific discovery is quickening.
"Until recently, there wasn't much you could offer people" to radically extend life, says James Hughes, executive director of the World Transhumanist Association, which advocates the ethical use of technology to overcome the limits of the human body. Now research into areas such as mineral supplements and the benefits of restricting the intake of calories is going to "cascade in the next couple of decades to the point where life extension will begin to radically extend," says Dr. Hughes, who teaches bioethics at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
For example: Years of research on animals have suggested that cutting intake of calories in half increases their life span. Few people are willing to endure semistarvation to follow this regimen. However, within the next decade, drugs that mimic the effects of a restricted-calorie diet may become available, Hughes says. "We're very close to being able to have a genetic therapy or a pharmaceutical treatment which will turn on those mechanisms in the body and hopefully gain a one-third to 50 percent increase in life expectancy."
Further into the future, but still in this century, nanobots - tiny robots the size of molecules - may be able to do tasks such as replacing white or red blood cells, he predicts, fighting diseases and carrying oxygen much more efficiently than their biological counterparts and extending life even more dramatically.
Others don't share this techno-exuberance, remaining firmly in the "show me" camp. Upgrading the human body from Version 1.0 to Version 2.0, as computer whiz Kurzweil suggests, may run into unexpected challenges. So far, modifying genes in animals has almost always resulted in negative tradeoffs, Olshansky says. A turkey altered to have more white meat, for example, might also develop problems with infections.
"We may have to pay a price, and the price we pay may be something we don't like," he says. He adds that he'd be "absolutely ecstatic" if science could lengthen the average life span by 10 years.
If lives were ever extended dramatically, bioethicists foresee a number of disruptive questions that will emerge, ranging from practical issues like its effects on government retirement programs and overpopulation to profound philosophical questions about whether there is a natural, even beneficial, shape to human lives. Mortality may provide an urgency to our endeavors and drive humans to achieve, they say.
Alexander sees the search for life extension as a kind of new religion. "What religion has promised to give us is trial and tribulation now, but a reward at the end," he says. "And we will have everlasting life, and we will have happiness, and we'll have enhanced bodies and minds.
"Well, if we can give ourselves these things, why do we need to wait for God to give them to us? That's quite a challenge."
If long-lived humans in the future were just like those of today, after "500 years or 1,000 years we would develop a deep ennui, a profound despair by having more time than we know how to deal with," Kurzweil concedes. But that won't happen.
"We're also going to be expanding our mental horizons during that time," he says. "I think this is our destiny. This is the whole point of our evolution. This is the next step in evolution." Being human, he says, means to "expand our horizons." Humans have learned how to fly and even how to leave this planet. "We didn't stay within the limits of our biology.... We're going to expand our thinking beyond that."
• Cryonics (not to be confused with cryogenics) refers to the freezing and resuscitation of organisms.
• Some reptiles freeze in solid blocks of winter ice and revive when they thaw. Their secret: high levels of glucose - a natural antifreeze - in their blood.
• R. Ettinger's 1962 book "The Prospect of Immortality" began the cryonics movement. His Cryonics Institute preserves clients in liquid nitrogen. Cost per person: $28,000.
• More than 70 people are frozen in the US, including a man from 1967.
• Many scientists - such as plant cryo-preservation expert Paul Lynch of England's University of Derby - call human resurrection an impossibility.
SOURCES: University of Florida, cryonics.org, Derby Evening Telegraph.