The Lifespan Debate

by Jon Schwartz March 25, 2016



The question I pose for my piece this month is this: are life spans long enough? Should we aspire to live to be 150 or 200 years old?  Or should we be content to live our lives to the current limit, 120 years (keep in mind the average life span is 78).

I bring up the question as we enter a time of increased scientific breakthroughs; of brilliant minds and deep pockets working on this puzzle. In the debate, there are two groups of people. Some believe we should pursue longer lives; others are very much against it. Here, I will outline some of the pros and cons of this ethically complex debate.

Today, in the developed world, nearly 90 percent of all deaths come from non-communicable diseases. These are non-contagious diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, neurodegenerative issues and diabetes. We can think of these diseases as age-related. Nobody wants to get Alzheimer’s disease, cancer or diabetes. No doubt, finding cures to aging will limit these diseases. As we begin to cure aging, society will benefit from healthier populations.

Some optimists predict that curing aging and thus these diseases, will allow people to live significantly longer. According to these same people, therapies would pay for themselves. A healthier society would not place strain on the expensive health care system. Healthy older individuals could continue to work, sharing their wisdom with the world. The argument goes further, to assert that aged individuals are more philanthropic, empathetic and less tolerant for war and violence. For these reasons, this cohort believes science should actively pursue an aging cure, to increase both life span quality of life.

On the other side of the room, there are experts, philosophers and ethicists trying to discourage the pursuit of longer life span. Their claim: society seems to fetishize youth and this trend only seems to become more prevalent. As people age, they tend to be more conservative and vote more often. Therefore, can you imagine having populations of people who were alive during the Civil War still living and voting today? Would the United States have progressed on civil rights to the extent that it has?

Our population only has a limited number of resources. Will our planet be able to handle large groups of people living to 150 and beyond? Will there be enough work for people to do? This group claims that longer lives will lead to more inequalities, and that these inequalities will only continue to grow as perhaps only the very rich or powerful are afforded life-extension opportunities. This group claims life should be like a great movie; there should be a beginning, middle and end.

The most likely scenario is that we begin to see a middle ground emerge between these two camps. The pursuit should not be to increase life span, rather, it should be about improving health span. I believe that we will continue to see healthier 80, 90 and 100 year olds than in previous generations. We will continue to see shrinkage in the time that one is sick to the time one dies.  This is a wonderful thing! Death helps us organize our life. Death helps us appreciate moments and to be grateful for the time we have. I believe what we want is more of the good in this life. In the same breath, we want meaning and value to come from each day, and perhaps that only occurs when we know our time is finite.


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