Do You Want To Live Forever?

It’s a not-quite famous line from Schwarzenegger’s Connan the Barbarian.  The obvious answer for the semi-neanderthal is no, but it’s not so clear how the rest of us might answer.  Scientific American reports that although we’re not quite at the point of promising immortality just yet, we’re getting pretty close to promising “a real long lifetime”.  Say, like 100 years, easy.

A type of gene mutation long known to extend the lives of worms, flies and mice also turns up in long-lived humans. Researchers found that among Ashkenazi Jews, those who survived past age 95 were much more likely than their peers to possess one of two similar mutations in the gene for insulinlike growth factor 1 receptor (IGF1R).

The gene doesn’t make you live longer, of course.  It just makes you “susceptible” to longevity.

The finding suggests that the IGF1R mutations confer added “susceptibility” to longevity, perhaps in concert with other genetic variants, the research team reports in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. “This is the tip of an iceberg of potential genetic alterations or mutations that are associated with longevity,” says study co-author Pinchas Cohen, a professor and chief of endocrinology at Mattel Children’s Hospital at U.C.L.A. (University of California, Los Angeles).

My gut says that I may not live long enough to see it, but my granddaughter will find centenarians common, and maybe she’ll even come to think of 80 or 90 year life expectancies as unacceptably short.

That’s exciting, of course.  The promise is not just longer lifetimes, lifetimes exceeding 100, 125 or even 150 years.  The promise is that these would be active, healthy, vigorous and even productive years.

Even as it is, with a little care (and more luck than I might want to admit), I could probably be actively employed for another 20 or even 25 years.  No, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’m not quite so naive as I was when I started this gig.  I am quite a bit more able to select my own opportunities and get fairly compensated than I was at, say, the age of 25.  In fact, I could easily see myself “retiring” to do something completely different, and something that I’ve wanted to do (and would enjoy), and I could do it at my convenience, on my own schedule.  Why not?  I have the wherewithal now, and a lot of people near retirement do.  All I’d need is the energy that good health might provide.

What I worry about is what this notion does to the way we live and interact.  I mean, I really, really don’t want to be working at the age of 95, even if I’m hale and hearty and feeling like a young man of 60.  Maybe I can understand being in the middle of my third or fourth career, but I think I’d rather be retired.  I think.

And what if I expected to live to be 200 or 250, because that becomes the “average” life span?  What does retirement mean then?  And when does world-weariness set in, anyway?  And what, by the way, does this do to the meaning of sexual fidelity and “’till death do us part”?  Will the average 120 year old be a thrill seeker?

Or worse, will the average 120 year old be scared of his own shadow because accidents are the only way he’s going to die soon?  Imagine extreme risk-avoidance behavior as the norm.  Imagine the consequences.

There’s so much about the way we way we live that’s tied into our expected “three score and ten”. It sometimes seems that the very essence of being human means that we know we are going to die.  When we get to the point that we don’t consider that fact anymore, then are we still human?

I’m not sure.

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