With the recent surge of enthusiastic support for LEAF/Lifespan.io and the idea of defeating aging, I really shouldn’t be complaining about the lingering holdouts opposing the idea of living healthy and longer lives for whatever reason. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to point out the jarring contradiction of a species whose members are constantly on the lookout to avoid danger, yet need to be reassured that at some point they will die and that science is by no means trying to prevent that.
Fear of life extension
This curious phenomenon was pointed out earlier this year by James Goodwin in the journal of the Gerontological Society of America. In his article “Fear of life extension”, he argues that the commandment of geriatrics is “quality, not quantity” because policymakers fear a future in which longer life means overpopulation of nursing homes, and as a consequence, researchers working on interventions on aging need to clearly state that their goal is just making our final years a little better—but making us live longer? God forbid, no! We only want to live in perfect health for about 80 or 90 years, then magically drop dead for no apparent reason.
Quite concisely, Goodwin explains that you can’t have significant longevity without an equally significant improvement of your health, and vice-versa; so did I, in my own small way, in this article. Yet, the idea of living longer than the status quo, or even suggesting that this might be a good thing, is almost blasphemous to some, and I’m not talking just about academics bending the truth a little for the sake of getting their next grant. “Quality, not quantity” has become a mantra, not only because of the largely unjustified concerns about the potential downsides of longer lives but also because it has somehow been incorporated into the set of conventional wisdom that nearly no one dares challenging for the simple reason that nearly no one else does.
Don’t worry—you’ll die anyway
I’ve personally talked to a number of people who think it would make no sense if your life never came to an end; there has to be closure for it to have meaning, they say. I’ve spoken to people who “know” they’ll want to die at some point, and I’m not talking about bitter old men who’re tired of their failing bodies and the many disappointments life has served them; I’m talking about barely adult people in their early twenties, with their health and looks still perfectly in place and pretty much a whole “normal-length” life to live. This, I must ascribe to the power that clichés have on the human mind; a lot of people repeat that accepting, wanting, and cherishing the finitude of life is wise, so it must be true, and so they follow suit. That sort of thing.
And it is no joke because advocates of rejuvenation often need to reassure people that this is not about eliminating death; it’s not about making you unable to die. Granted, that is true—rejuvenation doesn’t make you immortal—but I’ve lost count of articles and videos on the subject of aging that, while discussing advancements that may improve our lives and maybe even make them a little longer, still make it absolutely clear to their audience that they needn’t worry—fear not, you’ll still die at some point! Whew, what a relief! For a second there, I actually thought I’d be able to get out of life alive.
If you think it through, though, this is most strange. Like most if not all creatures on this planet, we have evolved to avoid danger and situations that might cause our own demise. To put it bluntly, we have evolved to fear death, yet we have people who say there’s nothing to fear in it.
If that’s so, why do we have hospitals to fix us up, ambulances rushing to accident sites in the hopes of making it in time to save the most people, safety measures to minimise our risk of death? Why do we look after our young, why do we take medicines and vaccines, why do we have suicide helplines? If there’s nothing to fear in death, why do we go through so much trouble to avoid it? Seems a bit odd to me.
Just to be clear—I don’t fear what lies after death because my personal view is that there’s nothing at all on the other side; and while I do fear a painful death, that’s not what I’m getting at here. Death would put an end to all I like and love, and quite frankly, that would kind of throw a spanner in my works. If something had gone wrong with me and I didn’t have the instinct to fear death anymore, I’d probably have a harder time avoiding death, but I’d still have plenty of non-fear-related reasons to want to avoid it.
What are the roots of this fear of longevity? Why is it that it almost can’t be spoken about? Is it the misplaced concern of longer decrepitude? Is it a fox-and-grapes situation? Is it some sort of Stockholm syndrome that makes us grow fond of our persecutor? Is it the fear of overpopulation and boredom? Maybe a combination of all of these possibilities?
I’m not sure, but I do know that it might be a roadblock on the way to a world without age-related diseases. As I said at the beginning, there certainly are reasons to think that the roadblock, if it is even there, is slowly being dismantled; nonetheless, I suggest not to underestimate this danger and to keep doing our best to explain why healthy longevity, not the finitude of life, needs to be cherished.
 Goodwin, J. S. (2017). Fear of life extension.