Edible Ethics: Extending Life’s Longevity, and its Limitations

Imagine living forever. Imagine never fearing age, sickness, infirmity, or death. It makes sense to want to live forever. We humans have a primal need for self-preservation, which entails seeking our own survival, no matter the cost. This desire to be immortal has long been an unattainable sci-fi fantasy. However, with developing technologies, having eternal life may not be too far off. We are still far from achieving the media-depicted rendition of living forever, that of eternal youth and bliss, but research is propelling us forward in the conquest of sustaining life for as long as possible. With this research, “as long as possible” may just one day be forever. As with any technological advancement though, extending life comes with it an entire litany of ethical implications that must be considered. The bio-ethical stance of extending one’s longevity is one to be taken seriously, especially with current research that is on the brink of an immortal breakthrough.

As medicine currently stands, when you save a life, you are simply halting the relentless advance of death by a single step. Saving life indefinitely is thus a goal of scientists and medical professionals. These researchers are feverishly working to hack the code of life. Our lives are shaped by losing loved ones to age-related diseases. We watch with horror as trivial disease that would never have felled them in the prime of life slowly sap away their vitality and vigour. Researchers have decided to view this as just another medical problem to solve, rather than an unsolvable plight and unfortunate reality.

Aging is not a monocausal process. It is a process in which all the different systems in the body begin to fail simultaneously. Researchers have decided to tackle the known causes of aging in a “divide-and-conquer” strategy. This mechanical approach is projected to solve the different system’s respective plights that are mutually detrimental. Moreover, researchers have predicted that increasing the average living age will have more efficacy than trying to cure each disease individually (Illing).

One current project in development is implantation of stem cells in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls aging. The cells within this region steadily die off throughout the course of life until they are almost completely absent. Implanting stem cells in this part of the brain thus slows aging, and subsequently extends life. Another popular project is extending telomeres, the protective caps at the end of chromosomes that house our genomes, and unfortunately, shorten over the duration of life. Extending these structures turns back the aging clock in human cells, thereby extending life (Fan).

Telomeres seen in a cluster of chromosomes.  Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy Human Genome Program

The benefits of anti-aging remedies are clear. However, so are the bioethical implications. The first and foremost ethical consideration is the social issue that has truly stood the test of time: will everyone have equal opportunity to drink from the fountain of youth? Researchers have projected that at first, this technology is inevitably bound to be expensive, such that only a select few wealthy individuals can afford it. This would further polarize the split between the different social classes. In addition, those who are able to afford this are allotted more time to acquire even more wealth, and even more power, due to their advantage of living longer (Than).

This issue of accessibility transcends into other sectors of healthcare. Many people don’t have access to any form of hospital treatment. Many don’t have access to any primary care. Many don’t even have access to basic vaccines. Although this is an issue to be taken seriously, we don’t ban hospital treatment, primary care, or vaccines. We provide all of the above because public policy has to be viewed from a perspective of doing the most good for the most people for the least cost. No policy will benefit everyone, but we can not overlook the benefits to the many because the few may be left out. So, even though only a few will have access to anti-aging remedies at first, this issue is a non-unique harm, and is not a reason to halt research going forward on anti-aging therapy. Furthermore, as this therapy is more widely available, the price will begin to drop, and thus, more will have access to it as time goes on.

The next big question is how this would affect population control. It is no secret that there is a discrepancy between the growth of our species, and the amount of resources available to support us. Extending life would certainly not help resolve the issue of population control. In fact, it may even lead scientists to engage in a form of generational cleansing to prevent overcrowding. This entails possible programming of when someone is to die, or making anti-aging therapy so difficult to obtain, that only a select few can access it. In this case, it appears as though we are back to square one of the accessibility issue (Than). Fortunately, there is also concurrent research being done to quantify the amount of resources available to support us. This includes the implementation of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) into our crops to enhance the nutritional quality and quantity of food. This research may be a saving grace in population control, and provides a framework to justifiably continue anti-aging research, since it would provide current and future generations the capital to support themselves (“GMO).

There is great prospect in extending the longevity of life. Saving a life and delaying its end may soon no longer be synonymous. We may yet triumph over the advance of death, freed at last from the base limitations of our physical shells. This war on anti-aging is bound to have positive impacts, but like any war, we must ask ourselves, is it worth the price? But when we think of all of our parents, our children, our siblings, that we have lost, all the times we have asked ourselves, “Why couldn’t I save you?”, we know that the answer can only be yes. We just can’t forget the pitfalls along the way.

Works Cited

Fan, Shelly. “Breakthrough Stem Cell Study Offers New Clues to Reversing Aging.” Singularity Hub, 4 Aug. 2017, singularityhub.com/2017/08/06/these-stem-cells-are-key-to-controlling-aging/#sm.000rqiti4qxefas118n25y4jd9qdc.

“GMO Research :: HOME.” GMO Reserch, 16 Mar. 2017, gmo-research.com/.

Illing, Sean. “Scientists Are Waging a War against Human Aging. But What Happens next?”Vox, Vox, 4 May 2017, http://www.vox.com/conversations/2017/5/4/15433348/aubrey-de-grey-life-extension-aging-death-science-medicine.

Than, Ker. “The Ethical Dilemmas of Immortality.” LiveScience, 23 May 2006, http://www.livescience.com/10465-ethical-dilemmas-immortality.html


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