Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Methusaleh Planet

No doubt you are at least vaguely aware of the research -- some of it going on right here at our nutrition research institute -- that grows out of the observation that mice who are given a nutritionally well-balanced but calorically restricted diet have abnormally long life spans and are spared typical ravages of aging. Experiments are underway to try the same strategy in humans, but hardly anyone is able and willing to stay permanently hungry on a diet of broccoli and soybeans, for 50 years. So now scientists think they are getting a handle on why this works, and that they can reproduce the effect with drugs, even as you pig out.

If this ultimately works -- and I have to say it just might -- we will have some serious problems to wrestle with, which the folks in the linked article, not to mention reporter Nicholas Wade, seem not to be thinking about. For example -- and this is just the really, really obvious one -- you might have noticed that we're having a hard time keeping up with the human population we have now, as far as oh, sufficient arable land, potable water, breathable air, fish in the sea, minor details like that. Since those foolish young uns are still having babies, if people stop dying for 30 or 40 years it's going to get mighty crowded around here, "here" meaning the third rock from the sun.

Another problem is that if I'm still sitting here amidst heaps of file folders and stacks of paper and miscellaneous electronic equipment 40 years from now, that's at least one post-doc who will never get a job, at least until the age of 60 or so. Tough luck, that. On the other hand, if I decide I've had enough and go on the dole, said post-doc may have a job, but will have to spend half the salary supporting me. That may or may not be a good deal for me -- I may get tired of Matlock re-runs after a few decades and wish I'd already checked out -- but it won't be a good deal for the youth, who may start to campaign for youthenasia.

You can see where this is going. How will it play out in countries that already can't support their population? Presumably when Sirtris first comes out with the pills, they'll want their patent protection and their big bucks, so most of the world won't be able to afford them. Eventually their exclusive marketing rights will lapse, or India and Brazil and China will just violate them, and the pills will be cheap, but both phases are going to mean tremendous conflict -- intergenerational, obviously, but the international, regional and sectoral resource wars we can already look forward to are going to be grossly exacerbated. And what about prisoners serving life sentences? Presumably, if they have a right to health care, and this becomes the standard of care, they'll have a right to it, which means that Bernie Madoff's 150 year sentence may not seem so ridiculous after all.

We can go on and on with this, spin out your own scenarios. It might be worthwhile at least thinking about it.

13 comments:

kathy a. said...

well, it doesn't seem likely that prisoners will be getting long-life pills anytime in the forseeable future. california's entire prison system -- we're number one! -- is under a federal receivership for its tendency to kill inmates by denying them medical care. the state is trying to get out of the receivership with the argument that we're in a budget crisis, we can't afford minimally humane treatment for prisoners. and we don't want to let any of them loose, even 3d strikers who committed some petty crime for their ticket to life in prison.

kathy a. said...

on a broader note, we have known for ages that comprehensive sex/health education, permitting women educational and political and economic opportunities, and providing comprehensive family planning is very effective in limiting population growth.

we are not doing all of this in our own country, much less assisting fully in other parts of the world. the people most in need happen to be those with the least political clout. the people most opposed have religious or economic interests that fail to consider either individual rights or global needs.

Cervantes said...

Yeah I believe one guy is doing life for stealing a slice of pizza.

I heard Ahnuhld was going to let some prisoners out, not any third-strikers but people convicted of minor crimes. Is that true?

kathy a. said...

yes, but he's not letting enough out to comply with a federal court directive to reduce the prison population by something like 40,000. that dispute is ongoing.

by coincidence, the prison guard union is a very powerful political force in CA.

kathy a. said...

the prisons also charge indigent inmates for medical care. a lot of guys put off visits because they can't afford the $5. one lawyer told me a horrifying story -- her client is terminally ill and he decided to turn in his oxygen equipment, he just wanted to go peacefully without further intervention. so, the prison cleaned out all the money in his account to pay for the oxygen equipment, leaving him w/o means to get a last few treats from the canteen. bastards.

C. Corax said...

Jose Saramago wrote a delightful little book about what happens when death stops visiting a particular country. The first half made me laugh out loud, which drew strange looks from fellow passengers on the bus. Worth a read. His cynical observations about insurance companies' ability to make a profit no matter what happens is quite timely.

Bix said...

So, it's not that it extends reproductive years? This could stretch out a woman's menopause? For, what, another 30 or 40 years? Those bones, those bones, those dry bones.

kathy a. said...

bix, i know i've got to worry about the bones, but the idea of extending reproductive capacity for another 30 years is nightmarish to me. done my time, raised my kids. i don't have any interest in passing as younger than i am. perimenopause has messed with me for many years, and i just want it over with already.

maybe that's a selfish desire for instant gratification [knowing "instant" in this case means waiting at least a year for menopause to be official]. maybe i find the idea of immortality uninteresting because it is so clearly impossible.

Cervantes said...

As far as I know it does not delay menopause, that's on a different clock. Interestingly, though, young women who are extremely lean have delayed menarche and may also miss periods. This happens, for example, to long distance runners. So perhaps if you start young it would also delay menopause, that could be an unknown.

kathy a. said...

the bits i could find on dr. google find a correlation between very low body weight and early menopause, in addition to the disruptions of cycles that you noted.

Bix said...

I didn't say that well. I should have said ... This is going to stretch out a woman's post-menopausal, low-estrogen years? And comment about bones follows.

Yes, my god kathy, imagine what 30+ additional years of bearing children would do to a woman's essentials?

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