PUMPING IRONY: Life Everlasting?

A renowned genetics pioneer argues that medical advances will someday allow humans to live well past 100 years. I can’t help wondering what would be lost in the process.

A figure shaped like an "8" on its side and made of seeds

David Sinclair wants everyone to live a long and healthy life. He’s not talking 80, 90, or 100 years either; he sees no reason why we shouldn’t be happily playing with our great-great-great grandchildren when we’re 150. In fact, the Harvard genetics professor believes there’s no biological reason why we should die at all.

“There are no biological, chemical, or physical laws that say life must end,” Sinclair writes in Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To. “Yes, aging is an increase in entropy, a loss of information leading to disorder. But living things are not closed systems. Life can potentially last forever, as long as it can preserve critical biological information and absorb energy from somewhere in the universe.”

This may strike you as slightly hyperbolic, but it’s the sort of thing that keeps Sinclair and his colleagues in the longevity industry busy. And, judging from the results of their research in recent years, there’s some evidence to indicate that certain types of genetic manipulation — the quieting of what he calls “epigenetic noise” — could extend lifespans. What really stands in the way, he argues, is the unwillingness of the medical community to classify aging as a disease.

The reasons are both simple and complex, he explains. The Merck Manual of Geriatrics defines a disease as an affliction that affects less than half the population. Aging, you may have noticed, affects everyone.

That and the cultural belief that aging is “just the way it goes,” stifles research funding, drug development, and insurance reimbursement. It prevents the antiaging industry from fully participating in the larger healthcare system. “Words matter. Definitions matter. Framing matters. And the words, definitions, and framing we use to describe aging are all about inevitability,” he writes. “We didn’t just throw in the towel before the fight began; we threw it in before we even knew there was a fight to be had.”

I suppose someone as well-intentioned as Sinclair can be forgiven for wanting to pathologize the fact that we all grow old, but I can’t help but imagine how such a shift in thinking would encourage the charlatans who already wander freely amid the growing throng of longevity experts. That said, even Sinclair’s nuanced vision of an antiaging future leaves me wondering whether a longer “healthspan” would even be worth living.

It’s not so much the idea that scientists could eventually regenerate damaged cells and repair aging organs that bothers me; that’s a welcome, life-saving scenario. It’s when Sinclair describes a world in which we are constantly chained to the latest version of wearable technology designed to monitor any blip in our organs that I begin to despair for what’s left of our civilization.

“Biometrics and analytics already tell us when and how much to exercise, but increasingly they will also help us monitor effects of our exercise — or lack thereof,” he writes. “And our levels of stress. And even how the fluids we drink and air we’re breathing are impacting our body’s chemistry and functionality. Increasingly, our devices will offer recommendations on what to do to mitigate suboptimal blood biomarkers; to take a walk, meditate, drink a green tea, or change the filter on the air conditioner. This will help us make better decisions about our bodies and our lifestyles.”

At a certain level, Sinclair understands that his vision of humanity’s future may not be widely shared (“This is terrifying to a lot of people . . .”) due to the limited carrying capacity of the planet and the ethical conundrums raised by widespread genetic engineering, but I’m not sure he completely comprehends how such an obsessive focus on extending our lives can blind us to the joys of the here and now.

I thought it was particularly ironic that last week I happened to be reading Charlotte Joko Beck’s Nothing Special: Living Zen at the same time as I was navigating Sinclair’s volume. Beck reminded me, in a way only a Zen teacher can, how powerful the temptation is to avoid simply facing what lies right in front of us in the moment — how tenaciously we cling to moments of happiness and how desperately we avoid moments of pain.

She compares life to flying through a hurricane. There is much turbulence, but when we pass into its eye we attach our hopes to its momentary tranquility. The wise pilot, however, just hangs on and embraces both the chaos and the calm. “Our own lives are like a ride, which inevitably ends in our death,” she writes. “We’re trying to do the impossible, to save ourselves. We can’t do that; in fact, we’re all dying right now.”

Even Nirvana is an illusion; it offers no protection from the world, Beck notes. The only path to real joy is to face life as it is. “If we spend our life looking for the eye of the hurricane, we live a life that is fruitless,” she explains. “We die without having really lived.”

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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