My first car was my grandpa’s 1986 Chevrolet Celebrity. It had a lot of character. About 25% of the time, if you stopped at a red, the car would stall, and I became adept at putting it in park, restarting the ignition, and getting back into drive before the car behind me started honking. I was not surprised that an older car had these kinds of quirks. As time passes, we expect “wear-and-tear” on machines to cause certain types of system failures. We accept some of them and try to fix the ones that are too dangerous. You would probably not be surprised to hear that it is theoretically possible to keep a car running forever if you were good about maintenance and willing to replace any parts that wore out. Irv Gordon demonstrated the potential longevity of vehicles when he earned a World Record for driving his 1966 Volvo P1800 3,200,000 miles. Most of us would never put so many miles on our cars because it would be so expensive, but not because it is impossible.
However, when we think about the human body, we are more pessimistic about the potential of dramatically extending the lifespan, even though the average lifespan of a human is longer than the average lifespan of our cars. The potential lifespan of a human has gradually increased due to medical technology, but not many people I talk to seem to be super optimistic that we’ll be able to push our lives to be much longer than 120 years.
I study a lot of physiology, which is basically the engineering principles of the body’s machinery. I think that where many people still see death as a quintessential fact that defines what it means to be human, I see death as a failure of a machine that we don’t quite know how to fix yet. When we know how to fix it, it will be like the car situation — expensive, but it will be possible just to keep living. It is likely to be one of the more complicated social issues in our history as a species when this occurs. I think we should be considering it seriously.
First, consider that the biology of aging as a field of study is very young. It didn’t get going until the 1980s when researchers identified a biochemical, genetic pathway that modulated lifespan in several different animals for the first time. We are rapidly learning more about the causes of aging and potential therapeutic strategies to prevent it. This acceleration is hard to keep up with.