Greater Longevity = Future Chasm?

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Greater Longevity = Future Chasm?

In the new issue of Atlantic Monthly, Charles C. Mann has written a very interesting article. First, Mann reminds us of a demographic trend:
In the past century U.S. life expectancy has climbed from forty-seven to seventy-seven, increasing by nearly two thirds ... by 2050 global life expectancy will have increased by another ten years.

... the ongoing increase in average lifespan is about to be joined by something never before seen in human history: a rise in the maximum possible age at death.

... "In ten years we'll have a pill that will give you twenty years," says Leonard Guarente, a professor of biology at MIT. "And then there'll be another pill after that. The first hundred-and-fifty-year-old may have already been born."
But the stem-cell banks, telomerase amplifiers and other treatments that are likely to increase lifespans may not be such a good thing. As Mann explains:
From religion to real estate, from pensions to parent-child dynamics, almost every aspect of society is based on the orderly succession of generations.

Every quarter century or so children take over from their parents—a transition as fundamental to human existence as the rotation of the planet about its axis. In tomorrow's world, if the optimists are correct, grandparents will have living grandparents; children born decades from now will ignore advice from people who watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Intergenerational warfare—the Anna Nicole Smith syndrome—will be but one consequence. Trying to envision such a world, sober social scientists find themselves discussing pregnant seventy-year-olds, offshore organ farms, protracted adolescence, and lifestyles policed by insurance companies.

... the coming army of centenarians will be marching into a future so unutterably different that they may well feel nostalgia for the long-ago days of three score and ten.

... there will be "furious" political pressure to avert the worst inequities (in terms of who gets access to longevity enhancements). For instance, government might mandate that insurance cover longevity treatments. In fact, it is hard to imagine any democratic government foolhardy enough not to guarantee access to those treatments, especially when the old are increasing in number and political clout. But forcing insurers to cover longevity treatments would only change the shape of the social problem.

"Most everyone will want to take [the treatment]," Goldman says. "So that jacks up the price of insurance, which leads to more people uninsured. Either way, we may be bifurcating society."

Ultimately, Goldman suggests, the government would probably end up paying outright for longevity treatments: an enormous new entitlement program. How could it be otherwise? Older voters would want it because it is in their interest; younger ones would want it because they, too, will age.

... To control spending, the program might give priority to people with healthy habits; no point in retooling the genomes of smokers, risk takers, and addicts of all kinds. A kind of reverse eugenics might occur, in which governments would freely allow the birth of people with "bad" genes but would let nature take its course on them as they aged.

Having shed the baggage of depression, addiction, mental retardation, and chemical-sensitivity syndrome, tomorrow's legions of perduring old would be healthier than the young. In this scenario moralists and reformers would have a field day.
And we thought all we had to worry about was Social Security, Darfur, global warming, marriage laws, the deficit, and outsourcing?

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