The Quest for Longevity: Dying Young Late in Life

by Dr. Todd Daly, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics

We are living longer. The tremendous advances in technology and medicine have lead not only to an increase in life expectancy, but also our expectations for a long, healthy life. If we’re honest, most of us hope to live well into our eighties and beyond, so long as we remain relatively healthy and independent. Yet this simple qualification—wanting long life on our own terms—subtly suggests that the continuing development of medicine and life-extending technologies have the capacity to shape our vision of a good life and a good death in profound ways.

One could argue that medicine and technology are increasingly leading us to consider the length of life as a key criterion in determining whether or not life is good. Yet, while the likelihood of living into our ninth decade continues to rise, the human body imposes its limitations upon our limitless desires. Even with continued breakthroughs against cancer and other common diseases, scientists acknowledge that the 120 year biological limit will remain unassailable until we are able to slow the aging process itself.

Some scientists are working on just such a project, and have already lengthened the maximum lifespans of nematode worms and laboratory mice through genetic manipulation and other techniques. Last November Harvard scientists expressed their shock at having actually reversed the signs of aging in elderly mice by using an enzyme which allows bodily cells to replicate beyond well-established limits. Hoping to simply slow aging in the mice, researcher Ronald DePinho reported that “we saw a dramatic reversal—and that was unexpected.” These telomerase-enhanced mice actually generated new brain tissue and muscle tissue, recovering the physiological characteristics of younger mice. It is still not clear, however, whether this therapy will extend the lifespan of mice or simply enable them to live healthier into old age. Either of these scenarios however, are very appealing.

Indeed, while one goal of aging research aims at ‘adding life to years’ by reducing the period of morbidity before death—about two years on average for humans—a more enticing scenario involves the possibility ‘adding years to life,’ of living several hundred years before dying very quickly. In the words of Ashley Montagu, “the idea is to die young as late as possible.”[1] Drawing on the well-established link between fasting and longevity, researcher Kenyon is trying to engineer a pill that mimics the genetic expression produced by fasting. She has already doubled the life span of the worm C. elegans by altering a single gene that mirrors the positive effects of a reduced diet. Kenyon envisions a day when slowing down our aging will be as simple as taking a pill. No wonder then that some researchers believe that aging itself is a disease in need of a cure.

These recent scientific breakthroughs are equally apt to shape our perception of just what constitutes a good life, and pose questions to Christians and non-Christians alike: “Is there anything wrong with wanting to live a very long time?” “Should we treat aging as a disease?” “If life is good, isn’t a longer life better?” These are all important questions that need to be addressed. But from an explicitly Christian perspective, I think the basic question is this: “Does this quest for longevity accord with the Christian vision of the good life as narrated in the Holy Scriptures?” This question will require a biblical inquiry concerning human nature, and the desire for long life—the topic of next week’s blog.

1 David Stipp, The Youth Pill: Scientists at the Brink of an Anti-Aging Revolution (NewYork: Current, 2010), vii.