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Paging Dr. Tithonius

Last week, after hearing a prediction of 1000-year life spans from Aubrey de Grey, Roger L. Simon expressed concern about the possibility of living too long.

112 years, say, of retirement doesn't sound exactly enthralling. That's a lot of checkers and parcheesi. One of the scientists interviewed in the article said people are living vigorous lives these days in their 70s. Ho-hum. What about in their 140s? Anybody for120 and over tennis?

I can understand why Roger Simon wouldn't want extra drooling years. The typical response to this concern from life extension advocates is to point out that it's not just life extension, but healthy life extension that is the goal. Bill Quick commented:

Roger. the biggest problem in talking - and thinking - about news like this is shaking the three-score-and-ten mindset. The question is not "120 and over tennis," but, "tennis for 120 year olds who are physically only twenty years old?"

We think of physical debility as the primary handicap of advanced age. The real problems will probably be for those raised to think of themselves as old at seventy who find themselves young at 100.

And the Warrior Class Blog (h/t) mused:

[T]ennis for the 120's set might well be played out on center court at Wimbledon. That determination would result from their ability as tennis players, not their age.

Certainly that is the goal - young until hit by a bus. But will it play out like that?

I suspect that life extension will come in three major stages (with many, many incremental advances moving us forward). Stage one life extension will slow aging, stage two will halt aging, and stage three will reverse aging - essentially allowing us, with maintenance, to stay whatever age we choose. I think most life extension advocates would agree with this outline.

If I'm right about that, there is the possibility that some older people in the early years of life extension will have additional years of disability.

Let's use, as a hypothetical, an average woman retiring today at age 65. She would obviously be concerned about the number of years she has left to live - she doesn't want the money to run out before her death. Assume also that with this person's general health and today's medicine she could expect to live to be 80 and that the last five years she would be effectively disabled - unable to do many of the things she likes to do. That means that her health would begin to decline in 2016 and she would die in 2021.

But we won't have today's medicine in 2016 or 2021. Let's assume that by 2014 we reach (as I've predicted in the past) stage one life extension. Our retiree is now 73 and is only a couple of years away from serious decline. But, if she is like most people she is still enjoying life. She has grandchildren and friends and she plays a mean game of Parcheesi. So, she begins stage one treatment - attempting to hold on to as much health as possible as long as possible.

With treatment the two years before decline are stretched to five. After that time she is disabled, but she chooses to continue treatment. The technology continues to improve and by the time she would have died without treatment, 2021, we've reached stage two.

Stage two, the point at which doctors can arrest aging, probably won't be an obvious point in time. It will be a vague milestone between stage one and stage three.

She would be frail during these years. But, aging arrested, she lives on hoping that the treatments improve before bad luck strikes - an accident or illness that kills her.

Her hope pays off. Stage three is obtained in 2030. Her treatments now reverse the damage of aging. By 2035 she is effectively a young woman again - at age 94.

Here's the point. This woman's years in serious decline are lengthened by life extension treatment. Instead of being disabled five years followed by death, she is disabled about 12 years followed by indefinite youth. Which is best?

In the history of the world, this is not a decision that many will face. Obviously those who are already dead never had a choice. And hopefully people who are young today will get stage three care when they need it. This is one generation's dilemma.

For someone faced with this decision, there will be no "right" answer. This will be a very personal decision. And its also a decision that people will have to make without all the facts. This lady could not know when she started the treatments that she would live to benefit from stage three, or even when stage three would be achieved.

I suspect that, like today, people will tend to seek the best medical care possible until they grow tired of fighting. Some people that start life extension treatments won't live to see stage three. But I think many people will try. Perhaps most people will try.

These optimists won't need to have hope for another tennis championship. They might just hope for some more games of Parcheesi - and a few more visits with the grandkids.


Instead of being disabled five years followed by death, she is disabled about 12 years followed by indefinite youth. Which is best?

I'll take 12, 22, 32, 42, or even 52 years of frailty for that payoff -- assuming I at least have my mind all that time and that my disability isn't unduly burdensome on my family.

I take the promises of life extension with a quite large grain of salt (and you'll probably accuse me of linear thinking). Turing thought in the 1930s that thinking machines were just around the corner, and that problem and the many subproblems that encompasses, have turned out to be extraordinarily more difficult than thought. Don't get me wrong; I believe thinking machines will be created, or evolved eventually, but I think real life extension is going to turn out to be so much harder than previously thought.

I'm 25. Maybe by the time I am 75 it will be here. In that sense, I am hopeful. Nevertheless, I'm not counting on it; I plan to make my goldmine by the time I am 50.


Your two assumptions (not overly burdensome and you have your marbles) are the heart of the dilemma.

Many who've planned for 15 year retirements might actually choose to forego life extension. Particularly since they won't know going in whether to plan for 12, 22, or 52 years of frailty.

I don't think that's the issue for Roger Simon. I have a sneaking suspicion that he could afford a very long retirement.

For him it's the thought of years of Depends undergarments that's the problem. If I were him and the indignity of frailty was my only concern, I'd start treatments when they are available and discontinue only when the fun is gone.

By the way Phil, I'm with you on the frailty thing. Although I've witnessed exceptions to this, the indignity of old age almost always beats the indignity of death.


You could be right about the arrival dates of these technologies. None of us know, we just have our suspicions. And you're right, aging is many problems. But all the problems won't have to be addressed before we see a benefit. When the easiest problems are solved it will give those beneficiaries time to benefit yet again from the solutions to the harder problems.

And here's where I accuse you of "linear thinking." :-) Advancements that would take a year today would come faster next year.

Ya Phil, you're so linear. :-D


I was actually addressing "D. Vision" with that "linear thinking" crack. Of course "D." was fishing for that with his comment. :-)

Phil - not so linear. :-)

Dr. Tithonius? I take it from the name that he's a cosmetic surgeon?

Suggested reading - After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, by Aldous Huxley. The canonical work on one of the issues addressed here.


Sorry for the obscure reference. Tithonius was the Greek mythological hero who asked the gods for eternal life, but failed to ask for eternal youth. He basically aged until he was a pile of dust without the release of death.

Life extension advocates have battled the notion that life extension will just lead to more drooling years. They call this notion the "Tithonius Error." Life extension advocates argue that for life extension to work it will have to grant more healthy life. Frail life by it's very nature isn't long life.

This post was my "Yes, but" post to other life extension advocates (I count myself amoung them).

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