For humans, we are still very far from the possibility of achieving immortality (or anything remotely close to it). However, we’re continuously extending our lifespan, and as scientists work on the potential to overcome aging, longevity research has come into vogue. As science, medicine, and technology all bloom (and those able to invest in biotechnology age), more and more entrepreneurs are focusing on mortality and longevity. And currently, signs of progress in the quest to extend human life are everywhere. Nations such as Japan are redefining what “elderly” means as more citizens pass retirement age and fewer families have children. One group of scientists is even pushing to have aging itself reclassified as a disease, and there is an ongoing debate in the community about whether there is ultimately a limit to how long humans can live.
Startups combining longevity and artificial intelligence (AI) research to find a “cure” for aging are gaining traction and funding. Human Longevity Inc. (HLI) was able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for its genome project and some Silicon Valley innovators even see death as “optional.” Of course, no one really wants to live forever if they’re sick in bed, or devastatingly tired or suffering in too much pain to enjoy their extra time. Tacking on extra years or even decades might not be worth it if those spans of time are filled with severe Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and arthritis. Researchers are now exploring longevity in new ways and changing how we think about aging. They are focusing on the health span rather than the lifespan alone, and on how to care for neurons, mitochondria, and other components of the human body that appear to control how we cope (or fail to cope) with age and disease.
From animal studies on caloric restriction, scientists have discovered several biological pathways that are likely central to aging, corresponding to growth and inflammation, among other processes. Now they are focusing drug research in these areas, which has led to promising results with drugs like rapamycin which has extended life in lab animals. Researchers have also analyzed the genetics of human “super-agers” who live into their 100s while remaining healthy throughout their lives. However, there are many factors involved in this complex process and it is exceedingly difficult to get real long-term data from humans.
Some scientists are recognizing that even technologies incapable (right now) of increasing the health span of all humans need to be discussed right now. For example, CRISPR might be a viable life extension tool someday; eventually we might be prepared to more deeply explore bioethical issues once we’re ready to use the tool in advanced ways. Recent research on a worm that has survived for millions of years without sexual reproduction by cloning itself also presents a fascinating — and ethically fraught — area for discussion. These won’t be the only ethical challenges we face should we significantly extend the human lifespan. Economic disparity, hunger, and overpopulation, for example, are already massive issues for humans all over the world. Longer lifespans would only heighten these inequities without necessarily drawing more attention to them. Ironically, this closer focus on aging may also allow us (or force us) to rethink our medical system as a whole, and transform our way of thinking from a reactionary school of thought that focuses on illnesses to a preventative model that focuses on wellness. If so, this will have broader benefits for everyone, regardless of life and health spans.