15 May 2024

Longer lifespans could be 'genuinely horrific', Cambridge researcher says

4:00 pm on 15 May 2024

By Richard Larsen

Billionaires are investing more money than ever before in the quest for eternal life - or at the very least, the quest for an extra few decades. But a Cambridge researcher says such a breakthrough could spell the death of society as we know it, if we aren't prepared.

For the wealthy and powerful, it's a quest as old as humanity itself. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, ordered his courtiers to develop an "elixir of life," presumably imagining a 21st century where he was still calling the shots; Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon was convinced the fountain of youth could be found in Florida - only to die of wounds inflicted by the native Calusa.

"The one thing that all these people, who claim to have found some kind of rejuvenation elixir, have in common, is that they're now all six feet under pushing up daisies," says Professor Stephen Cave, a senior researcher in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

But now, as Cave told 30 with Guyon Espiner, rapid developments in science and techonology mean the prospect of living vastly longer lives is becoming a reality.

"There have been genuine breakthroughs in the last few decades in research into ageing. It is now possible in the lab to double the lifespan of some organisms. So, we know it's possible to tweak the mechanisms of ageing."

Under lab conditions, mice and rats lives have increased by up to 50%, while smaller organisms like fruit flies have had their lifespans doubled. At the even tinier end of the biological scale, researchers have managed to double, or even triple, the lifespan of miniscule roundworms.

"The question is, how can we do that? Not just in nematodes and other tiny organisms like fruit flies, but how can we do it in vastly more complex organisms, like humans."

Peter Thiel

Billionaire New Zealand citizen Peter Thiel is among the extremely wealthy investors in ALTOS, an anti-aging research lab Photo: supplied

Anti-aging research lab ALTOS counts among its investors Amazon's Jeff Bezos, recently anointed New Zealand citizen and billionaire Peter Thiel, and Google founder Larry Page. At US$3 billion, it's possibly the best funded start-up ever.

But Cave warns that any major breakthrough would most likely be available to a select few, posing a challenge to the structure of society not seen since the industrial revolution.

"It is very likely that any intervention that significantly extends life will be expensive, at least for a significant time. And we would find it very difficult to accept that, I think. Right now, in the UK, the disparities in life expectancy between rich and poor, or different demographics within the country, are about 10 years. Whenever that's reported, it's with a sense of outrage, and rightly so."

The same is true across all the developed world. In New Zealand, there is an eight-year life-expectancy gap for men and a six-year gap for women between the least and most deprived neighbourhoods.

"If most people are still dying at 70 or 80, but some can afford to live to 150 or 160 and beyond, we would very likely consider that profoundly unjust."

Cave points out that while such breakthroughs in longevity remain, for now, as elusive as Qin Shi Huang's elixir of life, "there's now the possibility that soon it won't be, and I don't think we'll find that acceptable."

* 30 with Guyon Espiner comes out every week on RNZ, Youtube, TVNZ+ and wherever you get your podcasts.

The steep cost of much longer lives

But if everyone was offered the same life-extending opportunities, that wouldn't solve the challenges imposed on society as whole.

"Already now, pensions are under strain, because people are living so much longer. So that system is slowly evolving. People might be retiring one or two years later, they might be saving a little bit more. But there's nothing like the radical changes we will need if there are real breakthroughs in anti-ageing technologies," Cave says.

"What would marriage look like? What would friendships look like? What would training look like? In the rapidly moving technological landscape that we live in now, what does it mean to do your education at 20 and still be employable at 65?

"We'll have to think of life in radically new ways."

There's also the health of the planet itself to consider, if global warming continues.

"The maths are fairly simple - if people carry on being born but aren't dying - or dying a lot later - the population will explode ... there will be a population explosion from people living longer, just because of the number of generations who are alive at any one time. So, there's a lot of argument about what the carrying capacity of the planet is."

Despite these warnings, Cave says the goal of attaining longer, healthier lives is still worth pursuing.

"I think what we mustn't do is blindly stumble into this, because the consequences could genuinely be horrific. The consequences for the planet, which could lead to the destruction of ecosystems on which we depend, mass starvation, and so on.

"But also, the consequences for our society ... It's the broader impact on our economies and societies that lead to massive disruption; civil war, world war, and so on.

"So, we must take seriously the possibility of radical life extension seriously exacerbating injustice and think now about how we can set up a society that can accommodate longer lives."

Cave is also quick to admit that even he isn't immune to the allure of a much longer life, despite his sobering outlook on what the world he's living in might look like.

"I'm enjoying my life, I'm happy to say. I'm very lucky. I've got three wonderful daughters, a great job, so I'm not in any hurry to shuffle off my mortal coil. I'd go for 150, right now. We could check in again, then."

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