When discussing the possibility of medically intervening in the aging process, I often get the impression that people imagine a different future than the one that comes to my mind. What seems to be imagined is some sort of prolongation of years of infirmity and loss of agency, people stretching out their years while just barely living.
This is indeed a horrifying vision of the future, and not one that I would spend any energy to promote. It’s true that many people find such a prospect better than death, and I might agree, but it’s not the fate I really want for people. As such, I need to ask: is that really what rejuvenation detractors really think rejuvenation supporters are aiming for? It seems more likely that detractors have not really given it much thought, and simply adopted the first vision of the future their brains supplied them.
Allow me to provide another possible vision of a future, as a story in three parts. A story of the future that imagines life-extension via biological rejuvenation:
Sometime in the present day, you find yourself sitting in a cafe with an old acquaintance. Your grandfather had died recently, and it was a long time coming. The funeral was a few days ago and you have been left in a melancholy mood.
“It feels like we had lost him a long time ago, you know? The person he had been just… died by inches over years. At least he didn’t realize it anymore by the end.”
Your acquaintance nods with sympathy. “Kinda makes you wish for a clean death, none of this dragging life out, just for the sake of life.” Frowning in consideration for a moment, your acquaintance continues, “I’m sorry, that was insensitive of me. It’s a hard enough situation without needing to entertain such thoughts.”
“No, it’s okay, nothing I haven’t thought of before. Still, it makes me feel better that I‘m not the only one to think that sometimes.”
Shortly after that the conversation turns to more mundane topics, and eventually you both depart the cafe, the obligations of life calling.
A few years later you find yourself back at that same cafe with that same old acquaintance. Your father had died recently, an unexpected heart attack at a relatively young age.
“It came out of nowhere you know?” you muse, “Still maybe it’s better this way. Coming here reminded me of the conversation we had last time we were here. Thinking about how my grandfather went, I don’t know, makes me think my father got lucky, in a way.”
Your acquaintance leans back, brow furrowed. “How so?’
“A quick death a bit sooner than you might like versus stretching out your days in misery? I think I know what I’d choose.”
“Those aren’t the only two possibilities. Some people are in pretty good shape, even past a hundred.” your acquaintance points out.
“Some people are luckier than others I guess, but even then: ‘pretty good shape’ for their age. I think most of the time it really is somewhere between those two choices. And one of them just seems less terrible for everyone involved. Less greedy too.”
“I think I get your point, but it’s all pretty fresh right now. It’s easy to feel a bit morbid.”
“Morbid, maybe. But I think I’d rather be dead than have to live past a hundred.”
“So if you somehow made it to a hundred, and I gave you a gun, you’d point it at your head and pull the trigger?” your acquaintance responds with a challenging look.
“Ha! Now who’s morbid?” A moment’s reflection on that recent experience brings a small frown to your face. “But, yeah. I can’t imagine that life confined to some bed waiting to die is worth living. Like, maybe for a few extra years if I’m super lucky, but it’s not likely. Best for everyone if I can just end it.”
Your acquaintance is a bit surprised, and chuckles a bit. “Well, I’m nothing if not a friend, when the time comes, I’ll hand you the gun.”
You laugh at your acquaintance’s promise, and odd sense of humor, and the conversation moves on to happier topics.
Many decades passed since that conversation with your acquaintance after the death of your father. A lot has happened: you have lost much and gained much. You have lost family and friends to time, and entropy, and death. But you have gained so much as well, grandchildren for one. Being there for your grandchildren’s lives has been an amazing experience!
Even more amazing has been their great-grandmother’s experience. You lost your father many years ago to a heart attack, but your mother has been far more lucky. About twenty years ago she had been selected for one of the first generation rejuvenation treatments, she was about 80 at the time. Her health was starting to fail and was steadily losing mobility. But she had always wanted to see her great-grandchildren, and she was willing to try something new.
And it worked! Not perfectly, but according to the doctors she was biologically the same age as you after the treatment, so roughly in her biological 60s. Oh it was a pain to get there, months in the hospital, drug and gene therapy treatments, daily physio practice, and she still wasn’t completely as healthy as a 60 year old. She still had a bit of arthritis in her knuckles, not as bad as before the treatment, but not as good as when she was 60 the first time.
But she was able to move freely again. She could keep up with the great-grandkids, as well as any adult can keep up with any child. Somewhat surprisingly she actually went through the trouble of getting her driving licence back.
So when the team responsible approached her ten years later with an improved version of the therapy, she jumped at the chance. Literally! Well, it was a small hop, but not bad for some chronologically 90. Even biologically 70 it was impressive.
The treatments didn’t take quite as long this time, and they weren’t quite as stressful. Still took quite a long time of course, but their administration did seem to be improving. But the results were improving even faster.
The doctors said that she was biologically 40 now! Your mother was younger than you, and looked it! You weren’t really sure how to feel about some of the glances she was receiving in those days. You were even less sure how to feel about the looks she was giving other people!
Soon after your mother was released from the hospital the rejuvenation treatment was finally made available to the public. Your mother had planned to ask you to join the waitlist, but she need not have bothered. You could see the improved quality of life in the people who took it. True, it still wasn’t entirely without risks, medicine never was, but it was ready for the public, and that meant you. And truth be told, you were in your 70s now, and you were starting to feel some of the expected pains more acutely now.
It took some time for your turn to come up. A lot of time actually. The rejuvenation therapies improved through three more generations and your mom actually got treated once more before you got your chance. As one of the original test patients she had some priority access, which makes sense. She was now also one of the oldest people in the world, chronologically 120, while biologically she looked, and felt, somewhere in her 30s.
And so do you. After being released from a mercifully short hospital stay of only a month you felt better than you have felt in decades. A few weeks after you were released you took up swimming for the first time in your life. You had retired a long time ago, but the prospect of a new career some year soon started to seem more and more appealing. And now you have great-grandchildren of your own. It’s not a perfect life, but it is life. And a whole lot of it! And today is your 100th birthday.
Inspired by your new hobby you asked your family for a large beach party for everyone to enjoy. One of your grandchildren had asked you to help teach your great-grandchild how to swim.
Now you find yourself walking with your great-grandchild on the path to the beach, trailing behind the rest of the family. They were telling you all about their first day of school. In the distance you see your mother chatting with your children, smiles and laughter on everyone’s faces.
Along the path to the beach you notice an odd old man in a dark cloak to shield himself from the sun. You feel you recognize him somehow. For a moment the sight of a still old man reminds you of all the people who didn’t make it to this day. Curious, you tell your great-grandchild to run on ahead, you’ll catch up.
Walking over to the old man, you see that it is your old acquaintance from the cafe. You haven’t seen him in many, many years. Time has not been kind to him. He is thin with wisps of bone white hair.
Before you can speak he notices you and gives you a skeletal smile before speaking.
“I always keep my promises.”
He slowly withdraws something from his cloak. In his boney palm sits a small handgun. He extends his arm a bit, presenting it to you.
You turn your head away for a moment and see your great-grandchild beckoning you to join the rest of your family. You turn back to see the gun still on offer.
What do you do?