Mar 24, 2011

The Existential Importance of Life Extension

Posted by in categories: biological, biotech/medical, ethics, existential risks, life extension
The field of life extension is broad and ranges from regenerative medicine to disease prevention by nutritional supplements and phytomedicine. Although the relevance of longevity and disease prevention to existential risks is less apparent than the prevention of large-scale catastrophic scenarios, it does have a high relevance to the future of our society. The development of healthy longevity and the efficiency of modern medicine in treating age-related diseases and the question of how well we can handle upcoming issues related to public health will have a major impact on our short-term future in the next few decades. Therefore, the prospect of healthy life extension plays important roles at both a personal and a societal level.
From a personal perspective, a longevity-compatible lifestyle, nutrition and supplementary regimen may not only help us to be active and to live longer, but optimizing our health and fitness also increase our energy, mental performance and capacities for social interaction. This aids our ability to work on the increasingly complex tasks of a 21st-century world that can make a positive impact in society, such as work on existential risk awareness and problem-solving. Recently, I wrote a basic personal orientation on the dietary supplement aspect of basic life extension with an audience of transhumanists, technology advocates with a high future shock level and open-minded scientists in mind, which is available here.
On a societal level, however, aging population and public health issues are serious. A rapid increase of some diseases of civilization, whose prevalence also climbs rapidly with advanced age, is on the march. For example, Type-II-Diabetes is rapidly on its way to becoming an insurmountable problem for China and the WHO projects COPD, the chronic lung disease caused by smoking and pollution, as the third leading cause of death in 2030.
While the currently accelerating increase of diseases of civilization may not collapse society itself, the costs associated with an overaging population could significantly damage societal order, collapse health systems and impact economies given the presently insufficient state of medicine and prevention. The magnitude, urgency and broad spectrum of consequences of age-related diseases of civilization currently being on the march is captured very well in this 5-minute fact-filled presentation on serious upcoming issues of aging in our society today by the LifeStar Foundation. Viewing is highly recommended. In short, a full-blown health crisis appears to be looming over many western countries, including the US, due to the high prevalence of diseases of aging in a growing population. This may require more resources than available if disease prevention efforts are not stepped up as early as possible. In that case, the required urgent action to deal with such a crisis may deprive other technological sectors of time and resources, affecting organizations and governments, including their capacity to manage vital infrastructure, existential risks and planning for a safe and sufficient progress of technology. Hence, not caring about the major upcoming health issue by stepping up disease prevention efforts according to latest biomedical knowledge may indirectly pose challenges affecting our capabilities to handle existential risks.
It should be pointed out that not all measures aimed at improving public health and medicine need to be complex or expensive to attain, as even existing biomedical knowledge is not sufficiently applied. A major example for this is the epidemic Vitamin D deficiency of the western population which was uncovered several years ago. In the last few years, the range of diseases that Vitamin D deficiency and –therapy can influence has grown to include most cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, brain aging including Alzheimer’s disease and many infectious diseases. Ironically, Vitamin D is one of the cheapest supplements available. Moreover, correcting an existing Vitamin D deficiency, which may affect as much as 80% of western population, may cut mortality risk in half. The related mortality decrease would likely coincide with a reduced morbidity and illness of elderly people, resulting in large savings of public healthcare and hospital funds, since Vitamin D effectively prevents and treats some of the most costly age-related diseases. The Life Extension Foundation, for example, has already offered a free initial supply to the U.S. population and shown that massive healthcare costs (and many lives) could be saved if every hospitalized patient was tested for Vitamin D and/or given the supplement, however this offer was ignored by the US government. This is detailed in an article on the effects of widespread Vitamin D deficiency from the Life Extension Foundation, along with many references for the above health effects of Vitamin D at the end of that article.
To recapitulate, there are plenty of important reasons why the focus on disease prevention and regenerative medicine, by applying existing state-of-the-art biomedical knowledge, as well as advancing key areas such as stem-cell research, rejuvenation technologies and nanomedicine should be an urgent priority for advocates of existential risk management today and during the next few decades.

Comments — comments are now closed.

  1. robomoon says:

    How about a guideline for governments about the advantages of full spectrum light bulbs with UV rays? Some countries already made efforts to encourage adoption of CFL’s, those energy saving light bulbs, you know. Some parrot owners are using full spectrum light bulbs to give their loved pets healthier feathers. Also humans flourish under that light, from more Vitamin D the body is producing — like with real sunlight.

    And with bright light they can read more too — only the humans, not the birds. But this is good enough for measurements against an increasing mental senility in the older aging generation. Those measurements will help to prepare for negligible senescence involving further parts of the body, next to brain cells.

    Certainly, not anyone will mess with the big business of the food supplement producing industry. So in the meantime, just swallow the bitter pill and keep on reading about whatever provides security. For e.g., that people with light-sensitive conditions need to be careful with UV rays. It is important to read how smearing that combination of anti-aging and sun protection lotion in the face should finally protect light-sensitive skin.

  2. As a founding board member of LIFEBOAT, I’m delighted to see the members take an interest in this topic, particularly since it is about to come to a head, given recent developments in the field (including a running 4 year clinical trial). For those interested in discussing the social aspects, I will be debating the head of Zero Population Growth (not much of a debate as I tend to agree with John about the implications of extending maximum lifespan) on Thursday April 8th at the Ford Forum in Boston (

    For those with a more clinical interest in the pathology and in clinical intervention, I will be giving a medical webinar this Friday, April 1st entitled “Telomeres and Aging” hosted by TA Sciences ( in which I discuss the current clinical data, as well as the underlying biology and the pathology at the cellular level.

    For those with a truly academic interest, I refer you to my Oxford University Press textbook on the topic, “Cells, Aging, and Human Disease” (2004) or one of my many articles in JAMA and elsewhere, or to the final chapter of my first book “Reversing Human Aging” (Morrow, 1996) in which I addressed the social implications of doubling or tripling the healthy human lifespan.

    I hope you will all continue to debate this topic. Few of us realze just how relevant this concern is about to become, nor do they realize how close we are to effectively reversing the genetic basis of human (and general biological) aging. In short: we are about to live in VERY interesting times.

  3. Win Wenger says:

    I happen to be preparing a book on — or centrally featuring, I haven’t decided which — indefinite life extension, a subject which has had my interest for 65 years. Certain definite existential considerations:

    1) If we make anything like that breakthrough in human longevity, we very urgently have to develop space in a huge way, as immediately as possible. Even if a lot of us don’t physically move off of the planet, we will need the limitless resources, certainly of the solar system, in order for not only comfortable living but the population itself to survive.

    2) The process or treatment cannot be rationed either by cost, price, political pull, lottery or even merit. To provide it to some and not to others will absolutely blow up and destroy civilization. Instead, it has to be made available to everyone who wants it, immediately that the process emerges.