OPINION

America: It’s Time to Snap Out of the Pro-Death Trance

A Swedish hospital recently announced that a cancer patient was saved after doctors grew him a new windpipe in the lab using a synthetic structure and the man’s own stem cells. That might have sounded like science fiction just a few years ago, but today it is landmark news. Regenerative medicine has the ability to usher in radically longer and healthier lives, yet few are considering the implications.

The ability to grow new replacement parts for humans when original organs break down is a game-changer when it comes to extending human “health spans” — the amount of time one is alive and healthy. A handful of human subjects have already benefited from innovations in this area and dozens of organs have been successfully grown in the lab, including a rat heart.

The science is not easy, but because of the exponential growth of technological tools, it is moving faster than many had expected. Such growth has happened before.

I’d Like a Tune-up, Please

Better nutrition, sanitation, and pharmaceuticals allowed for the extension of life expectancy from a meager 43 years in 1850 to the almost 80 years it is now. Once regenerative medicine hits the mainstream, human life expectancy will similarly skyrocket. Soon it will be possible to maintain a human body like a vintage car: When something goes wrong, replace some parts and then be on your way.

If the replacement strategy works well enough, it is not a stretch to imagine an average life expectancy of 150 years. In fact, some scientists already think that the first person to live to 150 has already been born. What will that mean for society, and why hasn’t the dialog begun?

The impact will be nothing short of revolutionary. People will work for longer periods of time than they do today, but they will be healthy and therefore productive. Consider that the gains in life expectancy in America between 1970 to 2000 added about US$3.2 trillion per year to national wealth. But what about population growth — will it spiral out of control?

It is true that the world’s population is still growing, but it is also true that the rate at which it is growing is slowing down. Officials in many countries today are worried about population decline and shortage of workers.

When scholars at the University of Chicago asked what would happen if the entire population of Sweden were to become immortal, they found that Sweden’s population would increase by only 22 percent over 100 years.

This might surprise some, but cutting death rates doesn’t affect population as much as we might think. Heavy population growth really comes from births — not fewer deaths. And when it comes to births, one might ask about family and whether fertility will also be extended.

Choose Long Life

In a world in which people live longer, decisions about when to get married will shift considerably, particularly if it is relatively easy to put off childbearing for longer periods of time. In that quest, research is proceeding at a furious pace, and there has been some success at freezing a woman’s own eggs so she can have her own biological children later in life.

The coming changes will be enormous — but on the whole, positive. Why then, is there no sustained dialog about how to get to that point sooner? In America, a large part of funding for regenerative medicine comes from the Department of Defense, whose goal is to repair soldiers who come home wounded.

That is an effort everyone recognizes as important. Yet, when it comes to repairing older people whose hearts and lungs are failing, society seems at peace accepting their demise because that is all humanity has ever known — a state of mind that some call the “pro-death trance.”

Humans now have the opportunity to live much longer and healthier lives — for the greater benefit of all. It is time to break free from the pro-death trance and work toward speeding the revolution.

TechNewsWorld columnist Sonia Arrison is author of the soon-to-be released book 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith (Basic Books, Sept. 2011). Follow her onTwitter @soniaarrison.

2 Comments

  • I believe we would if we wanted to live we will live we will it’s human nature to want to survive not just human but animal we all want to live more then the person next to us wither we believe it of ourselves or not, and sadly it wont be the poor or the less fortunate that get these treatments it will be the rich the wealthy the people that can get the treatment above other people this is how it’s always been how it always will be. It’s sad the world has not changed and that no matter how we kid ourselves there will always be someone lesser then ourselves but this is freedom Darwin is right Its survival of the fittest to the end. and the fit just happen to be the rich and more fortunate. sorry to be a debby downer.

  • NSTAAFL ya know,somebody has to pay the incredible costs for these ‘miracles of modern medicine’ and with both the Ds and the Rs refusing to put any kind of caps on drug prices the bill is gonna get pretty hefty.

    My grandma recently died at the age of 95 and while I am grateful for every minute we had with her knowing that last year probably cost the state a good $170,000+ just for her frequent trips to the hospital does make it hard to justify. And we were lucky that she was VERY healthy right up to the end. What about those with lifelong illnesses?

    I have a relative on disability and the drug he is on is called Remicade and currently costs $98,000 a year and he will have to be on it for life. he is 43 and because the state would take away his medicare/caid if he worked he has to sit at home even though the Remicade is like a miracle and makes him almost normal. Its a total catch 22 where he needs the drug to be able to work but if he works he loses the drug and then can’t work.

    So who pays the bill? The only thing we can get congress to agree on is the 1%ers and big pharma should get blank checks so prices are gonna go nowhere but up, the downside of all these "miracles" is they rarely cure anything, only treat, which means years or decades taking these crazy priced meds, and already medicare/caid is quickly becoming a black hole. Personally I’d be happy for a single payer system with caps on prices like the EU but it is obvious that is never gonna happen here. So who pays? Do we end up paying 60%+ in taxes and insurance premiums just try to tread water, do we end up with "death panels" to decide who gets to live and who doesn’t, how do we pay for these miracles?

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