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Never Say Die: A Slate/New America Seminar on Radical Life Extension
J. Hughes   Nov 16, 2010   New America Foundation  

Slate magazine and New America Foundation are holding a seminar on the biology and policy implications of radical life extension today, with help from the IEET’s Sean Hays and with IEET Fellow Aubrey de Grey as a speaker.

I’ll be live-blogging the event.

Shock of GrayTed Fishman is first up. Ted is author of Shock of Gray The Aging of the World’s Population and How it Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation.   Ted spent the first part of his talk describing the radical improvements in longevity in the last century, and pointing to improved nutrition and public health efforts. The Dutch are a foot taller than they were a century ago. Women have gained a year of longevity every decade this century. We don’t give our governments enough credit for their contribution to improved longevity. The second half of the talk is about the social implications of aging.

Next up is the bioscientist panel. Cynthia Kenyon, who studies the biology of aging in worms at the University of California San Francisco, expanded on the pitiful investment we have made so far in curing Alzheimers, and the terrible personal and social consequences of Alzheimers. She concluded optimistcally that progress will be made…if the Tea Party doesn’t strangle the National Institutes of Health. Ana Maria Cuervo (Co-Director, Institute for Aging Research Albert Einstein College of Medicine) described some of the multi-pronged efforts to repair the effects of aging, sounding more SENS-like.

Aubrey de Grey (IEET Fellow and Chief Scientist, SENS Foundation) is starting from the existing life extension mechanisms such as calorie restriction, in order to make the case for the SENS engineering approach to life extension. Aubrey is arguing that, instead of maximizing the existing life expectancy with drugs and diet, using “regenerative medicine,” periodic repair of the mechanism, is the avenue to achieve real gains in life expectancy. He argues against hand-wringing about the demographic consequences of life expectancy since the effects will only accumulate over the next century. The policy we need to care about is making the case for more research monies for the biology and therapy of aging today, not dealing with consequences of having a sociey full of centenarians.

Dan Perry, from the Alliance for Aging Research, asks when the political tipping point is coming when the public and policy makers catch up with the growing conviction among biogerontologists that radical life extension therapies are possible. Stephen Johnston makes the Longevity Dividend point: policy makers will wake up and fund anti-aging research when they are convinced it is the solution to health care cost containment. When he argued for a more applied focus for NIH research funding he really got Cynthia Kenyon’s back up. She leaped to defend basic research, and Johnston dismissively noted that that was the typcal NIH response.

Ted Fishman  notes that everyone wants an optimal life extension outcome, but that most of us will settle for, as we are now settling for, a less optimal, sick and disabled, senior years if that is all that science can deliver. Most of the aging of societies is the result of dropping fertility rates more than extending life expectancy.  There will be great political passions aroused by the struggle for longer life, and how research and health care dollars should be allocated to achieve it. People will kill for a longer life. There are multiple scenarios for extreme longevity, and we don’t all get it in all those scenarios - in some scenarios, only some get it.  Observing China he came to believe that a future in which the old are pitted against the young is possible. He wants the panel to address the intellectual property issues of pharmaceutical research: “If life extension drugs are only available to the few because of patents it will be the equivalent of a Holocaust.”

Jason Furman is the Deputy Assistant to the Obama administration’s National Economic Council. The traditional linear economic future will be mainly effected by the decline in fertility. The policy challenge will be relatively minor, to increase Social Security withholding to pay for the current marginal increases in life expectancy, and adjust for fewer workers and future retirees. People are already trending towards later retirements, partly because the decline of retiree savings is forcing people to stay in the labor force or seek second careers. The Obama administration hasn’t yet considered the policy consequences of radical longevity. But if they did Jason believes it would effect the amount of tragedy that people assign to accidental ad unnecessary deaths, and would pres for more safety regulation. If health care became a larger proportion of the economy then more egalitarian priorities would come into play than is the case in the rest of the economy.  The life insurance market will face a real dilemma in writing policies that work.  There will a growing amount of inequality manifested glaringly in how long people live.

Jay Olshansky is a demographer at University of Illinois,  Chicago, and one of the principal advocates of the concept that anti-aging therapies can generate a “longevity dividend” that saves the social welfare net from being crushed by sick elderly. Getting any further gains in life expectancy from simply tweaking the existing biology or curing diseases will be increasing difficult for diminishing returns. There is no maximum life expectancy, but in order to get real gains in life expectancy we need to change the aging mechanism itself. That is also desireable because we want an extension of health, not just curing a series of diseases that only result in extending th period of illness and frailty. With therapies for aging itself we can, in the foreseeable future,  extend healthy life expectancy by seven years which would generate a huge social benefit.

Jason Robert is a very future-friendly bioethicist working at Arizona State University. There are both people who are forced to age and die against their will and people who are forced to live against their will. Like Ted Fishman, Jason notes that there are multiple possible futures with radical life extension, some of which are better than others. For instance great-great-grandparents may not have anything in common with their descendents, and that would change our family relationships. Between bioconservative and bio- libertarian approaches there is the possibility of a “bio-liberal”  approach where we set aside funds for anti-aging research while also interogating the future we are creating. 

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


Thanks for sharing this info. I was able to catch a bit of the talk because of your link to the live streaming. I’m currently working on the marketing and distribution of a feature documentary called HOW TO LIVE FOREVER, which explores issues of longevity and features Aubrey de Grey, Jack LaLanne, a host of centenarians and many interesting characters. In case you are interested in learning more, feel free to check out the film’s website: or drop me an email. Thanks again!

Congratulations to Dr J and to all the other people mentioned, for devoting their lives to doing what is right, despite limited support or recognition.  I can see the grey hairs on Dr J’s head though.  Mike Treders too (what litle is left of it).

I’ve always viewed what aging does to people as a horrific abomination.  You see old and grey folks wandering about, and they are largely ignored…invisible almost.  It’s really horrible.  And then there is dementia, where once genius minds are destroyed and the former genius is reduced to a gibbering zombie.  There are things worse than death….

I’m 39 now, I’ve been lucky, despite anxiously checking myself on a regular basis for the slightest signs of aging, I can see little to no evidence as of yet.  My hair is still the same shiny blond mop it always was.  I may be one of the lucky ones.  I fear my luck may not last however.  Dreams of Singularity have not panned out.  So this is the cause I definitely want to focus on now, as I approaching the danger zone of middle-age, and I’m hoping to contribute somehow. 

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