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A nation of Methuselahs
Is it possible for humans to live too long?
Methuselah
Advances in science pose a fresh moral problem: Is it possible for humans to live too long?

Is death optional? Can aging be cured? A human life with no expiration date has long been the stuff of science fiction, but some scientists believe these screenwriter fantasies will one day be real, as lifespans creep upward and medicine advances.

But if the life expectancy of, say, Methuselah, who the Bible says lived 969 years, is achievable, is it desirable, or even moral?

Renowned bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel said “no” in a recent essay in The Atlantic in which he said he would not seek “curative” measures to extend his life after he reaches age 75.

Death is a loss, Emanuel wrote, “but here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived.”

Another set of people are also deprived: the children of the long-lived, who cannot escape their parents’ massive shadows, never experience the liberation of inheritance and remain forever pressed between dual roles, that of child and parent. An increasingly elastic life span, in other words, not only gives us a nation of Methuselahs, but also one of Prince Charleses, who wait all their lives to be king.

Others worry that increases in longevity translate into unsustainable population gains: “Radical life extension is not socially good and not personally good,” said Martha Holstein, a Chicago scholar and co-author of “Ethics, Aging and Society.”

Among the downsides: further strain on public coffers already groaning from unfunded pensions and Social Security payouts that threaten both the economic wellbeing of seniors and the taxpayers who support them. Estimates of the nation’s pension liabilities range from $730 billion to $4.4 trillion, even as the ratio of workers to retirees is expected to shrink by half in the next 15 years.

From this vantage, it appears that Ebenezer Scrooge, pre-spirits, was right: If we’re going to die, “we had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

But pioneers in longevity, such as the scientists in this year’s documentary “The Immortalists” and the financiers at North Carolina’s Methuselah Foundation, believe aging is like any disease, an aberration that, if we are able, we are ethically bound to repair.

“Once we’re really, truly repairing things as fast as they go wrong, game over; we will have the ability to live indefinitely,” said gerontologist Aubrey de Grey in “The Immortalists.”

Of course, for people of faith, radically engineering human lifespans raises another question altogether: How do such efforts reflect on their beliefs about God and their hopes of life after death. And it gives atheists reason to wonder why people assured of heaven seem so unwilling to actually get there.

The ‘American immortal’

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas urged us to “rage, rage against the dying of light.” For Emanuel, writing in The Atlantic, succumbing serenely is better.

“By the time I reach 75,” Emanuel wrote, “I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy.”

But America’s life expectancy has already exceeded Emanuel’s target. In 1900, the average person lived to 47. Now he lives to 79, a generous allotment by the world’s standards. In fact, writing in the International Journal of Medical Ethics, Martien A.M. Pijnenburg and Carlo Leget said it is “scandalously unfair” for affluent Westerners who already enjoy the longest lives on the planet to consider living longer while life expectancy in undeveloped nations hovers at America’s 1900 levels -- 52 in Nigeria, for example; 49 in Chad.

Others are concerned that people are living longer, but not better, and in fact are increasing the number of years in which they are physically and mentally feeble: “Rather than saving more young people, we are stretching out old age,” Emanuel wrote.

Dementia is a particular concern. Already, one in three people over the age of 85 develop Alzheimer’s disease, and by 2050, the number of people with the disease is expected to triple.

The new 90

But most longevity researchers say they’re not interested in extending the process of dying, but increasing the range of a person’s most vibrant years.

“Whether or not some sort of exponential increase of lifespan happens anytime soon, a gradual increase in lifespan will almost certainly continue this century. People will still age one year at a time, so there will be plenty of time to figure out as a society how to address these legitimate concerns,” said Dane Gobel, operations director of the Methuselah Foundation, which provides funding for research in regenerative medicine.

The group asserts that by 2030, 90-year-olds can be as healthy as 50-year-olds are today.

“Eventually a much smaller proportion of the ‘elderly’ will be ‘aged and infirm’ -- they’ll instead be healthy, productive members of society who are able to contribute materially in the same way as they had in their adulthood, except with the added wisdom they have accrued over a long, healthy life,” Gobel said.

As for the ethics of engineered longevity, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the adjunct chair in Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School, said that path is clear.

“There is no ban ever on using the great tool of understanding and comprehension that God gave us himself to discern any or all secrets of the universe. There are no no-fly zones,” Rabbi Adlerstein said.

“The fact that we are moral and God makes us living time bombs, watching ourselves grow older, is a great favor. We only take life seriously when we have to encounter the possibility of death,” he said.

For Martha Holstein, all the hype about extending life -- with attendant aesthetic ministrations -- are misguided.

“Aging and old age are vital and important parts of human life,” she said. “To postpone it as long as possible is an erroneous goal, a goal that detracts from living right now in the moment.

“Right now, nothing has been shown to extend life, or quality of life, for long periods of time, except maybe for starvation, and what would life be without a piece of chocolate cake?” she said.

A 73-year-old who is still physically and mental active, Holstein supports research that contributes to vibrant old age, such as possibilities afforded by exercise and diet. Old age, she said, is “a valid and important time in human life, filled with its own developmental possibilities, and it can be t yet comprehend.

In 2006, for example, Holstein went hiking with her daughter in Scotland, and after two hours of climbing up a mountain in Edinburgh, she found she couldn’t go on any longer. So she encouraged her daughter to continue without her, and she enjoyed a peaceful two hours sitting on a bench.

“I adapted for my inability to climb to the top,” she said. “There are pleasures and delights that come in late life. There are gifts of old age.”

(Jennifer Graham is an East Coast journalist and author. On Twitter, she’s @grahamtoday.)