I’ve been recently enjoying an app on my phone called WeCroak. It reminds me five times each day that I’m going to die. The concept is based on a Bhutanese belief that happiness comes from accepting that death is around the corner.
This may seem a bit morbid, but I find it surprisingly refreshing. Some of the quotes that pop up are sobering and prescriptive, like this one from Buddhist teacher and translator Sangye Khadro:
“Contemplate the strong sense of dependence and attachment you have to your own body, and how it cannot benefit you in any way at death. Fear of pain and regret about leaving it will only compound your suffering.”
Others are more focused on mindful living, such as this quote from the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges:
“Time can’t be measured in days the way money is measured in pesos and centavos, because all pesos are equal, while every day, perhaps every hour, is different.”
Last week’s random reminders of my ultimate demise helped me put into perspective a new report from a London think tank describing the current state of the global longevity industry. The first in what the Biogerontology Research Foundation (BRF) promises will be a trio of studies designed to summarize the “various emerging technologies and industries which can be brought to bear on aging, healthy longevity, and everything in between,” the paper describes the players, progress, and promise of what it calls “the war on aging.”
It’s a battle that must be fought not so much to extend lifespan, the authors explain, as to limit the damage to the global economy that such extended lives are causing. In other words, it’s a campaign to keep geezers like me working (and paying taxes) longer while limiting the debilitating end-of-life diseases that so tax the healthcare system.
“The greatest problem threatening global economic prosperity and social stability is demographic aging,” they write. “Declining birthrates and increased lifespan are increasing population dependency ratios (working taxpayers versus the elderly supported by taxes), placing a growing burden on already tenuous government budgets.”
This actuarial approach to demographic management strikes me as rather morbid in its own way, as does its proposed solution. “The aim of geroscience and regenerative medicine is not for us to live longer in a sick, disabled state, but to prevent and delay the occurrence of age-related disease. An individual’s final few years of chronic illness are their costliest to the healthcare system,” the authors explain. “This will require the use of geroprotective drugs, stem cells, and progressively complex genetic therapy to mimic the salutary mutations enjoyed by rare supercentenarians.”
I’m heartened, however, to learn that there seems to be little coordination — or even communication — among the antiaging militias currently engaged in skirmishes on various fronts in this campaign: “One of the main conclusions upon finishing the report is that the longevity industry is indeed of substantial size, with many industry and academic players, but that it remains relatively fragmented, lacking a sufficient degree of inter-organization collaboration and industry-academic partnership.”
The visionaries at the BRF, however, hope to remedy this by creating an online clearinghouse for “uniting and incentivizing the many fragmented stakeholders of the longevity industry.” It’s an ambitious goal, to be sure, especially considering the current nature of the industry. How do you convince a collection of Silicon Valley billionaires to collaborate when their primary motivation for extending life seems to be highly personal: They’re simply keen to avoid the Grim Reaper themselves.
As Dara Horn notes in a recent New York Times opinion piece, there’s something inherently “shameless” (and quintessentially male) about this attitude — a level of hubris she compares with that of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk. “These people believed they were invincible,” she writes. “They saw their own bodies as entirely theirs and other people’s bodies as at their disposal; apparently nothing in their lives led them to believe otherwise.”
For those who have been called upon to take care of others, to practice the “nonoptional immersion in the fragility of human life and the endless effort required to sustain it,” suggesting that some combination of pharmaceutical or genetic manipulation could extend life indefinitely is simply ludicrous, Horn argues.
She has science on her side in this argument, noting that Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel laureate for her research on telomeres, has shown that maintaining those protein caps that protect aging chromosomes (the focus of so much recent life-extension research) will not make us all supercentenarians. Cells age and we die.
And that’s not a bad thing. Laura Deming runs a venture capital fund supporting one of the nation’s major life-extension projects, but she tells Horn she’s not interested in locating some real-life Fountain of Youth. “Aging is innately important to us,” she says.
Or as the late, great Ursula Le Guin reminded me via my phone just the other day:
“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”