Aging Is Our Enemy; Death Is Our Ally

By Kyle Munkittrick | January 6, 2012 9:21 am

Death is good. Death clears away old people to make way for new people and ideas. Death makes sure there aren’t too many of us on the planet at once. Mortality is our condition, and as meaning-makers, we cannot but live through the lens of knowing we must die. Death is just too important to kill.

So efforts to postpone death are misguided and unethical. People who try to fend off death are being selfish, are in denial, and are pouring money down the drain for cockamamy schemes to preserve their frozen heads for some fingers-crossed future, which will never arrive. At the same time, we shouldn’t let people die, particularly (and ironically) if they really want to. Choosing death is untenable. It’s against nature. No, death is good only when death decides it’s ready for you.

Or so go the arguments of many who oppose anti-aging technology.

But just because we accept death as good and necessary, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to say the same about aging. Can we argue for anti-aging technology, for 2,000-year lifespans of perpetual youth, and admit death can be good at the same time? Not only can we; we must.

We can accept death yet also seek to live vastly longer, healthier, and happier. Death is good, but so too is a long, long, long life. We can attain long lives of quality by rejecting extreme “life-saving measures,” embracing euthanasia, and accepting that there are just some things we cannot cure. Death has got to be our closest kept enemy if we want to be ageless. Baffling as it may seem, wanting to live to be a thousand years old is inextricably connected to the ability to decide when it’s time to give up the ghost.

Pace Kurzweil, I presume I won’t live more than 110 years; more than likely it’ll be closer to 80. There is a good chance that before I hit that lower number I’ll get a disease that corrodes my brain (e.g., Alzheimer’s) or my organs (e.g., cancer), that my body will begin to kill itself (e.g., auto-immune disorders), or that I’ll be injured in some catastrophic way. The problem is that most of us simply aren’t exposed to enough friends and family members to get an idea of what battles are worth fighting.

But doctors are. And how do they deal with end of life? They often let their lives end without a fight.

In his excellent piece “How Doctors Die,” Ken Murray gives a clear perspective on dying:

Almost all medical professionals have seen what we call “futile care” being performed on people. That’s when doctors bring the cutting edge of technology to bear on a grievously ill person near the end of life. The patient will get cut open, perforated with tubes, hooked up to machines, and assaulted with drugs. All of this occurs in the Intensive Care Unit at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a day. What it buys is misery we would not inflict on a terrorist. I cannot count the number of times fellow physicians have told me, in words that vary only slightly, “Promise me if you find me like this that you’ll kill me.” They mean it. Some medical personnel wear medallions stamped “NO CODE” to tell physicians not to perform CPR on them. I have even seen it as a tattoo.

Hell is being kept alive. We intuit this in every argument against immortality.

Consider this sad rehashing of the Eternal Old-age Argument by Paul Root Wolpe a bioethicist at NASA and Emory University, uncritically written up by Jason Gots at Big Think. The argument presumes we would sacrifice quality for duration. Living longer than our current average of 70-some-odd years would be problematic because we’d just be old, decrepit, and living in nursing homes longer. I’ve always marveled at the myriad ways in which some bioethicists construct overblown arguments against straw men representing longevity. Wolpe does an amazing job of extrapolating all the possible negative consequences of a form of longevity enhancement for which no reasonable person is arguing.

All reasonable arguments for life-extension argue that our enemy is aging, not death. Anti-aging researchers like Aubrey de Grey are trying to discover ways to expand the youthful middle of our lives, not the unlivable end. Life extension happens by delaying old age for as long as possible.

Which would you prefer,

  • Living 85 years with normal human aging pattern: 20 years to mature, 10 prime years, 35 slow decline years, 20 reduced quality old age years
  • Living 75 years with anti-aging medicine pattern: 20 years to mature, 45 prime years, 5 slow decline years, 5 reduced quality old age years

I would happily give up a decade of total life for a vastly more youthful life overall.

The critical piece is that anti-aging medicine would likely also extend the reduced quality years. So we need an option to avoid futile care and the high-cost cruelty it creates. It is here we welcome our good friend Death. We now have demonstrable proof that there is no “euthanasia slippery slope” as fear-mongered. We know that, given the choice, many doctors have a good idea when to say die. Thus, in a world where anti-aging technology is a reality, being able to maturely and rationally assess if a life of quality can be preserved without undo suffering is essential. And if life has become too burdensome, the ability to volitionally end it must be an option. Fight aging at every turn, but know that death is still a part of the process.

In accepting death as the partner of super-longevity, we realize all the benefits of a preternatural youthful life without the three great fears associated with deathlessness: endless old age, a cultural inability for the new to displace the old, and a loss of meaning.

Death, coupled with anti-aging, is something to shoot for.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog, Pop Bioethics, and on facebook and twitter.

Image of The Postmortal, by Drew Magary, a window into our love of death.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: death, longevity
  • Al Cibiades

    If you haven’t been there yourself, it’s all just words.

  • Patrick

    There are already too many people on the earth and the problem just keeps getting worse!

  • BOB

    If you could live forever, you surely wouldn’t have to if you didn’t want to. Death is always a valid option.
    As far as population goes, we would have to reach for space, planets, colonies, terraforming planets, moons so on etc.
    I can’t stand the argument that Death gives meaning to life – useless point just as “a cultural inability for the new to displace the old” – why is this important to you? To us as a society?

  • Bobby LaVesh

    “Which would you prefer,

    Living 85 years with normal human aging pattern: 20 years to mature, 10 prime years, 35 slow decline years, 20 reduced quality old age years
    Living 75 years with anti-aging medicine pattern: 20 years to mature, 45 prime years, 5 slow decline years, 5 reduced quality old age years”

    That would all depends on HOW reduced the quality of life became. It boils down to happiness- if I can no longer be happy due to my reduced ability to get around and function- losing a decade may be worth it.

    If I’m in terrible physical shape- but happy- let me live those extra 10 years even if it means more years of being physically, or maybe even mentally, impoverished.

    Life shouldn’t be measured in quality by how fast we can run a mile- but how happy and content one is with life.

  • Elva Graf

    Read “Younger Next Year”
    They are already helping people do this and it works.

  • Anthony

    A few grammatical mistakes…but otherwise, I agree with the post. In fact, the article’s discussion of this topic (life extension/anti-aging) is nuanced, unique, and refreshing.


  • Dr John Andersen

    Interesting article. I find it interesting that people can put forward such a range of justifications as to why we should accept aging and death. Nobody is suggesting the option to age and die should be denied to those that choose that path but we will have a moral duty to make available the fruits of our technology to those who wish to avail themselves of it. What I find most interesting of all is when I ask someone the question “what do you want to die from given the choice, a stroke, Cancer, Alzheimer’s or maybe a heart attack?” there is always a look of horror followed by the reply “none of them” but the reality is that few people die peacefully in their sleep and it is a virtual certainty one of the four will ultimately get you. I think what people often fail to grasp is that we are not talking so much about radical life extension as radically improving our health-span and it is a side benefit that through lengthening our health-span we will achieve dramatic improvements in longevity and the potential for people to remain productive members of society. As far as all the arguments about overpopulation these don’t stack up when you look at the falling birthrate in first world countries and in any case once a person has reproduced they have a minimal effect on population growth in any case. There is also the likely factor that if people live much longer and healthier lives they will have much smaller families or not reproduce at all. Personally I see the need to mitigate the effects of old age as an absolute priority if the baby boomers are not to bankrupt the health services in most first world countries. We must develop this technology and make it available to those who choose to take advantage of it.

  • yogi-one

    What I get from this is that you wish for a happy, healthy life and a (relatively) quick and painless end. Not quite sure how this is different from views held by many people for thousands of years. People have always sought out anti-aging strategies.

    Am I missing something here?

  • Lonely Flower

    Living longer means becoming more bored, I am still a young person but sometimes I feel very bored to the extent I am not sure to do with the rest of my life.

  • AG

    If there is medical method for living forever, I will support that. But true immortals do not exist. You will be killed by some thing at end if you can live forever. Imagine you can live more than million years, the chance you are killed by lightning will become major concern.

    Most likely you will be killed by plane crash, car accident, maybe war or nuke.

    So do not worry about prolonged life, you will be dead some how.

  • dave chamberlin

    flawed philosophy, says here ” some bioethicists construct overblown arguments.” some don’t?we don’t need no stinkin bioethicists, I prefer my science ethicist free. if I want BS I’ll go to church or turn on my TV

  • Chris

    For an interesting view on what would happen if we couldn’t die watch Torchwood: Miracle Day.

  • Aron

    I think you’re under estimating the vast research being done in the biotechnology field. We’ve only been able to sequence DNA for a decade. Think computers in the 80’s, the best is yet to come.

  • Anton Sherwood

    Greg Egan’s story “Border Guards” has this dialogue:

    “Some people […] were opposed to immortality, in principle.”

    Jamil laughed. “Why?

    “Ten thousand years’ worth of sophistry doesn’t vanish overnight,” Margit observed dryly. “Every human culture had expended vast amounts of intellectual effort on the problem of coming to terms with death. Most religions had constructed elaborate lies about it, making it out to be something other than it was — though a few were dishonest about life, instead. But even most secular philosophies were warped by the need to pretend that death was for the best.

    “It was the naturalistic fallacy at its most extreme — and its most transparent, but that didn’t stop anyone. Since any child could tell you that death was meaningless, contingent, unjust, and abhorrent beyond words, it was a hallmark of sophistication to believe otherwise. Writers had consoled themselves for centuries with smug puritanical fables about immortals who’d long for death — who’d beg for death. It would have been too much to expect all those who were suddenly faced with the reality of its banishment to confess that they’d been whistling in the dark. And would-be moral philosophers — mostly those who’d experienced no greater inconvenience in their lives than a late train or a surly waiter — began wailing about the destruction of the human spirit by this hideous blight. We needed death and suffering, to put steel into our souls! Not horrible, horrible freedom and safety!”

  • Icke

    Wow, some people want to even live longer than average? Beats me. But it’s their choice; I just hope the euthanasia thingie gets implemented, can’t wait to humanely shuft off this brain.

  • Michael

    (Sorry if this appears more than once: earlier attempts did not lead to an apparent post or a confirmation message).

    If you think about it for just a moment, you’ll see that the article’s thesis — that we want to eliminate the plague of age-related disease and disability, but still die on the normal schedule — is self-defeating. As you make people healthier, you also make them live longer. People in robust health don’t just drop dead, and despite what one often hears, in the last four decades life expectancy at age 65 has climbed year after year. Today, people are far more likely to live to age 80 and over — and *vastly* more likely to be centenarians — than they were in the past, precisely because we’ve made inroads into determinants of accelerated age-related disease, such as tobacco, hypertension, and serum cholesterol. New medicines that target aging itself will cut into age-related disease and death at once, because being old and sick puts you at risk of death, and being young and healthy does not. Banish age-related ill-health, and you banish age-related risk of death: they are inevitably fellow-travelers.

  • Brian H

    Dr Anderson;
    well said.

    As for population problems, there’s likely to be a shortage of young people for quite a while before things balance out again one way or the other! The world’s demographics are changing in unanticipated ways:

  • gsantostasi

    Kyle, lol. Anti-aging= anti-death. Cannot be otherwise.


The Crux

A collection of bright and big ideas about timely and important science from a community of experts.

See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar