By Todd Daly

The idea of seeking an earthly immortality, or at least the desire to continue living indefinitely, has been around as long as humans have been around. While the fountains of youth have dried up, hygienic techniques proven to be more trouble than they’re worth, and anti-oxidant and hormone therapies have been proven to be essentially useless, the promise of genetics has turned out some stunning success stories, re-igniting in many the hope for at least a marginally longer life. Recent advancements in the relatively young field of biogerontology-the study of the biology involved in the human aging process-have offered promising insights into extending the human lifespan, leaving some scientists optimistic that human aging may soon become the latest process to yield to technological manipulative effort. Techniques like selective breeding, caloric restriction, and genetic manipulation, have already demonstrated that the life spans of mammals and multicellular organisms can be significantly extended. For instance, altering a single gene in a nematode worm produced a seven-fold increase in the life span. American biologist Andrezej Bartke has extended the life span of a laboratory mouse by 70 percent with a combination of genetic alteration and caloric restriction.

Who wouldn’t want to live to 100 or 120? Yet, these gerontologically-minded researchers all know and readily acknowledge that it’s not simply a longer life that we’re after, but a longer, healthier life. Certainly, no one appears interested in living to one hundred if the last twenty years of life is spent in a prolonged, isolating morbidity, marked by physiological decline and increasing dependency. One only need think of Tithonus, who was granted immortality, but neglected to ask for eternal youth, or the even more horrifying depictions of the immortal Struldbruggs in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

However, aging research is working on a way to overcome these frightening scenarios. The really significant point to all of these laboratory extensions is the fact that these extended life spans have been accompanied by an extended period of health and vitality, assuaging fears of prolonged senescence and physiological decline. Thus, we appear to have moved closer to the more enticing scenario where we have the possibility of growing older than we ever have before without the nasty side-effects of aging. That we’re going after such a scenario speaks volumes to our general fear and avoidance of the impossibility of our own death. A related goal, but one not receiving as much attention, is the hope for greatly reducing the period of morbidity preceding death. It is hoped that by retarding the aging process, the maladies associated with aging might also be defeated, allowing us to ‘die quickly,’ when we do eventually die.

A recent exchange between zoologist Steven Austad and ethicist Gilbert Meilaender in a recent meeting of The President’s Council On Bioethics is instructive:

PROF. MEILAENDER: So you wouldn’t picture a future in which, however we died, we all died sort of in the pink of health.

DR. AUSTAD: That would be the ideal, certainly. And this is one of the things that the demographers have been arguing about, as we are living longer and longer, are we really compressing the period of ill-health or not, or are we simply just moving it back?

The idea of a quick death, dying in ‘the pink of health’ after a long life, of not having to experience the trauma of an inoperable tumor, of not having to experience our own physiological or cognitive decline, of not having to live in the knowledge that our death is imminent, is the way most of us would want to die. What this says about us and our inability to face death is worth considering.

There was a time, as Jacques Choron observes, when a “sudden death was a manner of dying dreaded above all others.” Death was once an event infused with moral significance, given the tremendous influence of the afterlife. The medieval artes moriendi-treatises on the art of dying well-enabled one to prepare for death, to learn to let go of life when death was imminent, and to prepare one’s soul for the life to come. We’ve become a culture highly developed in the art of avoiding dying. Compressing the period of morbidity before death appears to be another attempt to domesticate death, to have it on our own terms, to ‘get it over with’ quickly, exposing our own moral bankruptcy before that which is inexplicable, ignominious, and impossible, our own death

Todd Daly is a CBC fellow.