Expert’s list of immortality dangers as anti-ageing breakthroughs made

Could this space mission help reverse the ageing process?

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Scientists are making stunning breakthroughs that are bringing humanity closer to cracking the code of a never-ending life. But one expert has told that the question of whether immortal humans would do more harm than good needs to be considered. Ever since the dawn of human history, civilisations have been searching for ways to live forever, with stories found in nearly all cultures detailing pursuits of immortality in the hopes that science can cure death. But Dr Stephen Cave, a Cambridge University professor and the author of several books on the morality of ageing, has questioned whether it is even a good idea to try and take this on.

Dr Cave attended the Should We Want To Live Forever at Sky News’ Big Ideas Live event, where he explained the potential downfalls of human immortality. He also questioned whether this long-saught-after dream could ever truly become a reality. 

He said: “People have been dreaming about extending life beyond the 70 or 80 years that you might think of as natural for as long as recorded history. The very first stories we have, like the epic of Gilgamesh, are about the pursuit of greater longevity, rejuvenation, the fountain of youth, immortality and so on. You find it in ancient Egypt, ancient China, and throughout the history of science. 

“Yes, you can meet scientists now who say that we’re on the verge of this breakthrough that is going to solve ageing, but scientists were saying the exact same thing 100 years ago. People believed them and some people made a lot of money, some people got sick, some people got better because of placebo effects. But really from the very dawn of science, it has been used to pursue this dream. 

“Are we any closer today? Yes, I am sure we are…but there are two things to separate. In the last 150 years or so, life expectancy has doubled, but it has doubled to around 70 or 80 years. Through public hygiene and vaccinations, what we have managed to do is bring infant mortality down. If you imagine half the world living until the age of five, and the other half living to 75, the average is around 35 or 40 years. So life expectancy has doubled, but not by getting people to live much longer than humans have ever lived. The basic structure of life hasn’t changed.”

“Life expectancy has continued to creep up beyond that, over and above infant mortality, but much more slowly.  Up until a few years ago, life expectancy was creeping up at about two years per decade. So someone born in 1990 can expect to live two years longer than someone born in 1980.

“But they can only expect to spend half of that time or less in good health. So people were living longer, but really by making a disease that would have killed them manageable – so it kills them longer, meaning they are living longer but dying slower. 

“We are seeing progress on the elderly end of slowly increasing lifespans, but not really through big breakthroughs. They are not transformative – it is not creating the world of fit, strong 100 hundred-year-olds that people dream of.”

But while some scientists view this as merely a pipedream, other experts have made some great advancements in the field, with billionaires like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos investing billions into anti-ageing start-ups to speed up some crucial research.  

‘It’s only a matter of time before we make progress’

This has led to some exciting revelations, mainly in mice and other animals. But it is hoped (by some) that these miraculous treatments could one day have the same effect on humans.

Dr Cave added:  “Scientists are becoming ever-more advanced. It is phenomenal how we are understanding the nature of our bodies. And as we continue to do so we will repair them better and there have been really promising avenues of research that have been demonstrated to have effect in mice, for example.

“It feels like it is only a matter of time before we make significant progress with humans. But at the moment, the relationship between ageing and the killer diseases of the developed world is still not very well understood.

“Some people think that diseases like cancer, heart disease and stroke are just a sign of ageing – in a way they are closely related and it is part of the ageing process, but other people think of them as separate. One study showed that if we did manage to cure the big three – stroke, heart diseases and cancer – people would live about 10 years longer, not more.

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“It is not as much as you might expect and that reflects the fact that there is this much broader ageing process where are bodies are sort of crumbling and we don’t know how to stop that.  A lot of anti-ageing researchers believe there won’t be one magic bullet, but rather a lot of different kinds of treatments that can treat the many different aspects of age.”

But while a longer life could be on the cards for some of the luckier people on the planet, there are also fears that the technologies that could allow people to live longer will only be available to a select few. 

Dr Cave said: “There is a real risk that this could exacerbate social inequality. We read in the papers from time to time that people in the North have a lower life expectancy than people in the South, people of a certain ethnicity, or rich people compared to poor people and so on. And usually, in the UK, we might be talking about a 10 year difference and people are outraged and think it is an injustice. 

“But imagine if the wealthy have access to these technologies and can live many decades longer. Then it seems that death would no longer be the great leveler and people could use their money to buy their way out.

‘There’s a good chance it’ll be expensive’

“I think as a society, we would find that unacceptable.” Dr Cave also added that people will begin to question their right to such technology – and whether the already overworked NHS should be spending vast sums of money to prolong life.

“Our societies and environments are not ready for us to live longer, ” he added. “So this would create some really difficult policy dilemmas. There is a good chance that it will be extremely expensive and then we will have to make hard choices about what we prioritise.”

Talking about hard choices in real terms, he said some people even now are denied interventions because they are ‘too expensive’ and said: “Money is not infinite and hospital managers and doctors are used to making these really hard choices. But I think in the first instance, anti-ageing technology, if it is expensive, which is likely…will create even more pressure on these limited resources, an even more sharper sense of hard choices.

“This field has a very long history of people making these predictions about breakthroughs that could help people live forever, but the one thing they have all got in common is that they are all now six feet under.

“The kind of breakthroughs we are talking about are very hard to predict. What people like Jeff Bezos hope for is that we can have enough small breakthroughs to keep them going long enough until maybe 50 years from now, there’s a big breakthrough. This is what we call longevity-escape velocity.”

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