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Death as a disease

Human life expectancy has greatly expanded throughout history. Around the year 3000 B.C. the average person lived to about 26 years old. Today, the European country Monaco has the highest life expectancy at an estimated 89 years. Most of these gains have been made in the recent century. From 1950-2015, the global life expectancy increased from about 45 to about 70. This is thanks to scientific innovation. That innovation is now leading us to study the mechanisms of life and unlock the secrets of aging.

The amount of knowledge we have acquired and the discoveries of tomorrow call for a new way to look at old age and death. As a society, we should look at aging and death as a disease to be fought and less as a simple fact of life.

Life, in a simple sense, is simply layers of chemical and physical processes that put energy and work into systems that result in everything from trees to frogs — even you. A crucial aspect of this is DNA copying itself and cells using that information to build our bodies. Over time, the information gets damaged in a process called cellular senescence, which causes DNA damage responses like double-strand breaks: a major factor in aging.

Everyone who has ever lived or will ever live will face this fact of life. Imagine if we could reverse this. We have. Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies conducted an experiment where they reversed the age of rats. The results found there were no adverse side effects, the rats looked younger, and they lived 30 percent longer. Scaling that to humanity, we can bring many countries’ life expectancies to over 100.

Dr. Juan Belmonte, a researcher in the study, said, “Obviously, mice are not humans and we know it will be much more complex to rejuvenate a person. But this study shows that aging is a very dynamic and plastic process, and therefore will be more amenable to therapeutic interventions than what we previously thought.”

Many people in Silicon Valley believe that computer technologies hold the key to extending life, projecting Moore’s Law – the computing law stating that processing power for computers doubles every two years. The trends in technology predict the eventual possibility of nanobots small enough to be implanted and travel within the body, helping to deal with health problems as they occur. Ray Kurzweil, an engineer at Google and computer scientist, believes that technology will result in immortality by the year 2045.

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of radical life extension. They say things like overpopulation will destroy us, or it’s unnatural to live longer or potentially forever. Then again, just because something is a natural part of life doesn’t mean it’s good. Measles and smallpox were a natural part of life until vaccines practically wiped them off the planet. I believe that humanity longs for the idea of eternal life. It’s why religions promise everlasting life. It’s why we construct stone monuments and headstones. It’s why we put our hands and write our names in wet concrete. Everyone wants a part of themselves to live on.

Many think of aging and death as a future problem – a problem for the you of tomorrow to deal with. The issue is that the you of tomorrow is never you. You always live in the now. Life is only experienced in the present moment. In the present moment, you do not want to die. No one wants to get old and die. Why accept it? Even in those final moments that you accept it, it isn’t death you wish for — you wish for health or peace. And with a new frame of mind, we can extend that age of health and wellbeing.

That’s why we need a new framework on how to view our relationship with aging and death. Instead of it being a normal fact of life, let’s look at it as a disease that needs to be fought. Humanity has always dreamt of living longer, but instead of dreaming of a potential afterlife, we have the potential to bring it to this one.

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