Death: From Mystery to Solvable Problem?

Originally Published in Flourishing December 2011

Elsewhere in this newsletter, I mention the fact that when I was born, human life expectancy in the United States was 62.9 years.  When my father was born in 1917, it was about 56 years.  A white male born in 2004 had a life expectancy of 75 years, and a white female had a life expectancy of more than 80 years. Do you detect a trend here?  This essay is a thought experiment, but not just a thought experiment:

Robert Freitas of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing in Palo Alto,California estimates that eliminating a specific list of 50% of currently preventable conditions would extend human life expectancy to …yes, 150 years.

Now, let me really freak you out:  A laboratory at the University of Arkansas has managed to genetically alter worms to extend their life expectancy more than tenfold.  As a result of similar experiments, Dr. Cynthia Kenyon at the University of California now says that “People have always thought that, like a car, our body parts eventually wear out.  But we found out that over time, when one gene was manipulated, the worm remained youthful – in all ways – so that age-related diseases were also postponed.” 

Obviously, we’re not worms, but like worms we are DNA-driven organisms. The first Human Genome Project, completed in 2000, cost $2.7 billion.  At about the same time, Dr. Craig Venter sequenced his own genome for $70 million.  By 2009 it was possible to get a genome sequenced for less than $5,000, and like computing power, the cost and time required for genomic sequencing are accelerating toward zero.  How long will it be before treatments and cures and manufactured human organs are genetically tailored to each individual? I don’t know, but Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near, points out that AIDS drugs that cost $30,000 per patient per year fifteen years ago, now cost about $100 per patient per year; and they work more effectively now, too.

The struggle against aging and death has been going on for a long time.  Because we value life, that struggle is the most natural thing we could do.  I expect that most of us will fight against aging and death to the very end of our lives; I know that I intend to do that very thing.  This is not intended as a religious statement, but I have never believed, as some do, that the purpose of life is death. The purpose of life, I believe, is to live it. And maybe, just maybe, it’s time to start thinking about the death of—or at least the radical postponement of—death.

My purpose in this essay is not to hold out an unreasonable hope for radically extended life expectancy for those of us already well past our physical prime.  But, as we close the old year, I would like for you all to think about what it might mean for your financial plan, if you were to live just 15 years beyond your current life expectancy. You might then want to ask yourself what it would mean to your financial plan, if your children or your grandchildren could expect to live to 150 years.  I freely confess, I don’t have the answers – or at least not your answers – but I’m convinced that these are becoming important questions.

And now, since the rest of your life starts today, take good care of yourself; and please—have a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year!  mh