Saturday, June 14, 2008

When old becomes obsolete...

Just as Sen. Obama has released a remarkably effective and politically explosive position to stabilize Social Security, I read this fascinating (albeit slightly over my head) article about actuarial escape velocity:
The escape velocity cusp is closer than you might guess. Since we are already so long lived, even a 30% increase in healthy life span will give the first beneficiaries of rejuvenation therapies another 20 years—an eternity in science—to benefit from second-generation therapies that would give another 30%, and so on ad infinitum. Thus, if first-generation rejuvenation therapies were universally available and this progress in developing rejuvenation therapy could be indefinitely maintained, these advances would put us beyond AEV. Universal availability might be thought economically and sociopolitically implausible (though that conclusion may be premature, as I will summarise below), so it's worth considering the same question in terms of life-span potential (the life span of the luckiest people). Figure 1 again illustrates this: those who get first-generation therapies only just in time will in fact be unlikely to live more than 20–30 years more than their parents, because they will spend many frail years with a short remaining life expectancy (i.e., a high risk of imminent death), whereas those only a little younger will never get that frail and will spend rather few years even in biological middle age. Quantitatively, what this means is that if a 10% per year decline of mortality rates at all ages is achieved and sustained indefinitely, then the first 1000-year-old is probably only 5–10 years younger than the first 150-year-old.

The third oversight that I observe in contemporary commentaries on life extension, among which Coping with Methuselah is representative, is the most significant because of its urgency. First-generation rejuvenation therapies, whenever they arrive, will surely build on a string of prior laboratory achievements. Those achievements, it seems to me, will have progressively worn down humanity's evidently desperate determination to close its eyes to the prospect of defeating its foremost remaining scourge anytime soon. The problem (if we can call it that) is that this wearing-down may have been completed long before the rejuvenation therapies arrive. There will come an advance—probably a single laboratory result—that breaks the camel's back and forces society to abandon that denial: to accept that the risk of getting one's hopes up and seeing them dashed is now outweighed by the risk of missing the AEV boat by inaction. What will that result be? I think a conservative guess is a trebling of the remaining life span of mice of a long-lived strain that have reached two-thirds of their normal life span before treatment begins. This would possess what I claim are the key necessary features: a big life extension, in something furry and not congenitally sick, from treatment begun in middle age. [More]
In short, what if new therapies (doubtless expensive) keep moving the end of life faster than 1 year per year. We're already adding 4 months per year. That's gonna mess with Social Security repair plans!


And we're only #29 in the world for life expectancy.

I have always viewed extreme-lifespan proponents with wariness. The current method of choice is restricted caloric intake. It's hard for many of us to view that future as worth the effort. But the studies in caloric restriction could identify the physiological responses that could then be prompted not by eating less, but by drugs.

While this is a bright promise for pharmaceutical companies, it poses some enormous problems for humans as a group. And we're not very good at those.

It is easy to envision a thin layer of wealthy (and healthy) very old people atop all facets of society. In fact, it is hard for me not to see that happening. Wealth tends to get the good stuff. But as many of us grit our teeth and assume bad guys like Robert Mugabe will at least eventually exit, what would it mean when a "President for Life" means decades more than we now think?

Of course, we're not near this point, but I must admit we're approaching it faster and more people and giving it a hard ponder.

Think of our profession. The oft-quoted statistic that "geezers own 126% of all farmland" (or does it just seem like that?) would only become more entrenched. In fact, one of the biggest factors is our misunderstood "lack" of young farmers, may just be longevity. When taken to the extremes imagined above, we're looking at a permanent landed "agristocracy".

Always remember that land is power. Nothing else comes close for us.

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