Once we’ve conquered our diets, instituted a regimen of exercise and saunas and cold plunges, doused ourselves in NMN and resveratrol and Metformin and benign viruses, quit smoking and cut down our drinking and remembered to wear our seatbelts, there’s one main obstacle remaining in the way of an extra-long and healthy life: our guilt.
Whether it’s hard-wired or a result of societal expectations, we tend to feel that old farts should not outstay their welcome. Leave some room for future generations, we grumble under our breath, out of earshot of elderly relatives. You’re already taking up too much of the housing stock, making it near-impossible for millennials to buy homes. You want to bankrupt Social Security and Medicare too?
Just last month, Ezekiel Emanuel, the chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s department of medical ethics (and a chief architect of Obamacare) confirmed that he stood by his controversial 2014 essay: “Why I hope to die at 75.” Despite the onslaught of anti-aging research, Emmannuel (now 62) said his main arguments still held water: That people in their 80s who were still vigorous were not doing “meaningful work;” that authors above 75 were not producing “brand-new books” but simply re-ploughing old furrows.
Let’s leave aside the fact that’s a pretty weird metric to judge the worth of a life — sorry, grandma, time to go, you’re not doing meaningful work or writing new books! Emanuel’s argument ignores what biologists like Sinclair are telling us. The more we age in good health, the more useful we will be.
Sinclair, as you might expect, could not disagree with Emanuel more. First of all, he says, let’s assume everyone stopped dying of age-related causes tomorrow — and they won’t, even under the most extreme anti-aging regimen. But if they do, that’s only 100,000 extra people per day sticking around. (Around 150,000 people die every day, roughly two-thirds of them from age-related causes.)
Compare that to the world’s current growth rate. More than 350,000 babies arrive every 24 hours. Earth’s population is growing because of the size of the average family in the developing world, not because more people are living longer. The main way to bring it down is to educate more women and move more families into cities — where, by the way, we shouldn’t blame Baby Boomers for the lack of housing. We simply need to build more.
Total human population should level off at around 11 billion around the time your century dawns, whether or not the aged continue to die. And as for the threat of climate change — well, perhaps the older generation will start to pay more attention when they’re actually going to live with the effects themselves. Or when they have to look their great-great-grandchildren in the eyes and explain their inaction.
Secondly, a healthy longevity boom would actually take an enormous burden off the healthcare system. Reducing just one of the major killers like heart disease, even by 10 percent, could save trillions of dollars, money that can then be reinvested in medical research or just returned to patients in the form of lower costs. And that’s the whole point of treating aging as the ultimate disease, the one that effectively produces all the others. (For example, Sinclair writes, smoking makes lung cancer five times more likely, but just living from 20 to 70 increases your chances of getting the disease a thousandfold, even if you’ve never sucked on a cancer stick.)
“Aging is by far the biggest risk factor in any disease, by an order of magnitude,” Sinclair says; having volunteered in nursing homes with his wife, he knows whereof he speaks. “Don’t delude yourself: Getting old and getting sick is not fun, for you or for your family. So I believe we have an obligation to preserve our health for as long as possible.”