Live Very Long and Prosper a Lot
Think how culturally and materially richer we would be if people could live, be healthy, and contribute to society up to ages of 150, 200, or beyond. Thus argues Sonia Arrison, senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. In her book 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith (Basic Books, 2011), she tracks the advancements of “life-extension” medical techniques, which undo the damage that our bodies incur over time. With further refinement of such procedures, Arrison hopes, we could look forward to unprecedented innovation and societal reform as brilliant innovators stay with us and share their knowledge and experience for decades—and in time, centuries—longer than they would today. She spoke about this with Rick Docksai, assistant editor for THE FUTURIST.
THE FUTURIST: Your book will find a lot of fans here in the World Future Society. Life extension is a topic that excites a great many of us.
Sonia Arrison: One of the things that excites me is that a lot of the science sounds like science fiction, but it isn’t science fiction anymore. You might have heard about the man who had cancer of the trachea and was going to die. Doctors tried an experimental procedure to grow a new trachea in the lab. The surgery was done using a synthetic scaffold. It's been a month since the surgery, and the man is cancer-free.
THE FUTURIST: Countries across the globe anticipate having huge populations of senior citizens on their hands and not enough resources to serve all of them. People are living longer than ever as it is, and it is actually creating some problems. In such an environment, why would countries want to pursue life extension?
Arrison: If people are around longer and they're healthier, then the entire society is going to be wealthier. That’s because we’re not giving up the experience. Think of all the older people you know who are super smart and have tons of experience, but then they die and it's lost, and the next generation has to rebuild. If we didn't have to lose all that experience as quickly, we wouldn't have to keep rebuilding. It would be a tremendous resource for society.
If we look back at history, most of the greatest innovation is done by people in their later years. Elderly people, because of their experience and because of the trial and error they have been through, are really good at coming up with new products and ideas.
THE FUTURIST: I imagine that progress toward life extension will vary country to country. South Korea is reportedly far ahead of the United States in stem cell research, and some people expect that much pharmaceutical research now taking place in the United States might move to France and Germany. What advantage would countries like South Korea, France, and Germany have over others? If they achieve super-long life spans before other countries do, how would geopolitics change?
Sonia Arrison: That’s a really smart question. One of the reasons America is a leader in the world is because we're so wealthy. Economic research shows that health creates wealth. There are seven country studies that show that living extra years creates extra growth. If one country has a five-year advantage in life expectancy then real income per capita grows between 0.3 and 0.5 percent faster per year. That’s pretty significant when you consider that between 1965 and 1990, real income per capita growth was only 2 percent per year. And that’s just with a 5-year advantage. Imagine if it’s a 20-year difference! This really could put the U.S. at risk if we don’t keep up.
THE FUTURIST: As you note, life extension has a lot of skeptics and some opponents. Perhaps speaking of “life extension” and “living to 125 or more” can unsettle people. Perhaps the concept is more palatable if presented as boosting senior citizens’ well-being and reversing aging. What do you think?
Arrison: I think the best way to make the pitch is to take a look at what our health-care system looks like now. Most of the money spent on health care is spent at the end of life. If we could come up with technologies to make people healthier longer, we'd be spending less money on health care period.
THE FUTURIST: What would death look like, if people aren’t getting sick and dying of all things that they do now?
Arrison: I think the progression of morbidity would be different. I think we would be healthy for a long time and drop off quicker. I’m looking at a health span of 150 years. But eventually, we will see a society where we just keep repairing people indefinitely. The only thing that’s going to kill you is accidents or some plague or something that we can’t predict. There would still be things that can kill you, but they'd be quick, and you wouldn’t spend months in the hospital sucking up a lot of resources.
THE FUTURIST: How fast are we moving toward the extended life spans that you describe in the book? How fast should we move, ideally?
Arrison: I think that we are moving a lot faster than most of us realize, but we're also not moving fast enough. The reason we're moving faster is new technology, plus people are more interconnected today: There is the Internet. Another reason is expanding computer power.
But we’re not focused on this as a goal. I don’t see society as concentrated on being healthy and living longer, like it was on going to the Moon. We’re going to lose a lot of people we would not have lost in the first place. I don’t want to lose all those people, so I want us to move faster.
About the Interviewee
Sonia Arrison is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute and a columnist for TechNewsWorld. Her work has appeared on CNN and in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. She lives in Atherton, California.
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