Escaping The Pro-Aging Trance: Hope for Longer, Healthier Lives

One of my more controversial beliefs is that people of my generation may live radically longer and healthier than any generation of humans in history. Whether radically means 20%, 50%, 2x, or more than 5x longer, I cannot say, but I believe by attacking the process of aging directly, scientists and technologists may find effective ways to extend the human healthspan. By doing so, we would buy ourselves additional time to make additional breakthroughs in slowing, stopping, and/or reversing aging so that eventually we may reach longevity escape velocity. This term, coined by Aubrey de Grey, represents a hypothetical situation in which we would be extending life expectancy faster than we would be aging. The almost unimaginable implication of achieving such a state is that humans could potentially dodge death in perpetuity, hypothetically living not necessarily forever, but perhaps for as long as we wanted.

I will not put a probability on this scenario, and my hopes for my own healthspan are certainly more conservative, for the time being at least, but there is an idea that often comes up in opposition to the possibility of extending human healthspan which is important to address. Aubrey defines the sort of trapped thinking which I would like to help some people escape as the pro-aging trance. Listen to the 90-second explanation from 4:35 – 6:05 (47:42 – 46:12 remaining) which Aubrey gave in the podcast episode I recorded with him earlier this year.

As Aubrey explains, for all of human history, it has made sense to rationalize death and aging as best we could because the possibility of living 50% or 2x or 5x longer or indefinitely seemed impossible. If solving aging and defeating death is hopeless, which it was, it of course makes sense to justify why it would be bad and undesirable even if the reasons we use to justify that don’t make sense (over-population, food shortage, death giving meaning to life, etc.).

It is important today to recognize that what seemed impossible in the past may, in fact, only be difficult. I don’t write that to trivialize the difficulty of an achievement so ambitious as reversing aging, but rather to clearly differentiate that which is difficult from that which is impossible. This is an extremely important distinction to make because impossible achievements are not worth pursuing whereas difficult pursuits may be the most worthwhile of all, especially if the reward is something so significant as to successfully help humans live meaningfully longer and healthier lives.

For those who may be wondering what has changed to make what once seemed impossible suddenly (in the context of human history) within striking distance, it is important to appreciate not only the potential of new and exciting technologies like CRISPR and stem cell therapies, but also the recent achievements along the relevant metrics which have already been accomplished. The first two milestones which I mentioned above (living 50% or 2x longer) have already been reached in the last ~100 years as per this incredibly hopeful chart below:

People argue against the continuation of this chart by contending that it was mostly due to decreasing child mortality and infectious diseases and that we would need new angles to extend the trend much further. This observation is reasonably fair but to argue that those new angles are not possible just because they have not yet been achieved is not. If you looked at this same chart going back centuries or even millennia it would look flat forever with just a small vertical blip at the end. Just because child mortality and infectious diseases were the first big ticket items which we tackled does not mean that there are no others for us to solve. I believe humanity will one day reflect on the last century or so of increasing human healthspan as phase 1 of the process and that targeting aging directly and materially increasing not just the average but the maximum human healthspan will be phase 2.

For the same sensible reasons that the pro-aging trance exists in the first place, it is a somewhat dangerous game even now to start believing you can live healthfully well past 100 before the technology to do so is evidently here. Without further technological advancements, the chances would remain that you will be wrong, and the thought of having hope for something which may never come to fruition is always scary. Still, people buy lottery tickets everyday and dare to dream of what they would buy with their winnings even though such an outcome has far lesser odds in their favor. The risk of hope in any instance is that you may well be disappointed in the end, but the reward is that the thing you hope for becomes reality, and in most cases that never could have happened had you never dared to dream when it seemed unlikely.

In humanity’s quest to live longer and healthier lives, we need some people to start believing it is possible or even probable before it necessarily makes perfect sense to do so. The growing group of early believers brings attention to the efforts which in turn brings funding which accelerates progress so that we may achieve milestones like the doubling of healthspans in mice. The achievement of every milestone bring incrementally more believers and eventually defeating death may become the probable destiny that the people in the beginning believed even before it was true. This is similar to the way those who believed Bitcoin would become what it has over the last decade were irrational when they held that belief in the beginning but are now recognized as having been right.

I am not asking you to believe people will be able to live healthy lives for as long as they desire. All I am suggesting is that you open your mind to the potential that living longer and healthier lives may be possible within our lifetimes, and more importantly, that such a thing would be inherently good. Commonly cited problems like over-population and food shortages are far from unsolvable. In fact, many have argued in the past that we could not sustain the populations we have now, but here we are. These arguments and others which oppose efforts to extend the human healthspan have been conveniently used to excuse us historically from having false hope for something that seemed impossible, but it is now time for us to realize the irrational nature of these excuses and the rational reasons for believing we can live longer and healthier lives. If one would not desire to live youthfully well beyond 100 and experience a shorter period of suffering at the end of a longer life, the problem is less likely to be with the new way of dying than with one’s current way of living.

I believe this is the best time to be alive in the history of humanity. I believe the future will be even better. I believe we can live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Do you dare to join to me?