Forever Man

How we'll live longer, and why this may not be good for us.

When Huguette Clark died last year at the age of 104, obituaries spoke of the immense wealth she had inherited from her father, a Montana copper baron who had bought himself a U.S. Senate seat and, in the early 1900s, founded Las Vegas. At the time of her death, she had $500 million and owned a 42-room “apartment” right on Central Park in Manhattan.

Childless, Clark had decided to give most of her wealth to charity. Smaller sums also went to her nurse and goddaughter, among others.

Soon after her death, authorities launched a criminal investigation into the alleged mishandling of her money by her lawyer and accountant. A grandhalf-nephew and two grand-half-nieces appeared as well, looking for ways to Clark’s fortune.

Born a bit later than 1906, Clark might have avoided this squabbling over her fortune. That’s because she might have been able to live forever.

For most of human history, we’ve died young. From the Paleolithic era through the early 20th century, the average life span worldwide remained in the 30s (with some regional and historical variations). But in the last century, lifespans worldwide jumped into the 60s, and scientists began to point to a possible upper boundary of around 120 years, at which point the body finally fails.

Until now. A growing number of doctors, geneticists, nanotech experts and other scientists believe that aging can be slowed dramatically or stopped altogether. In fact, scientists recently discovered genes within “supercentenarians” that protect them against other disease-associated genes.

Stem-cell-seeded organ farms, pregnant 70-year olds, telomerase amplifiers, somatic gene therapy, the prospect of adolescence stretching for decades — it’s the stuff of science fiction. But it’s quickly becoming simply science.

“The first person to live to be 1,000 years old is certainly alive today,” writes Cambridge University geneticist Aubrey de Grey. “Whether they realize it or not, barring accidents and suicide, most people now 40 years or younger can expect to live for centuries.”

De Grey seems thrilled by the idea. “It’s not just about life. It’s about healthy life.

Getting frail and miserable and dependent is no fun, whether or not dying may be fun,” he said a few years ago while presenting at a TED conference, an idea-driven lecture series in which big thinkers wrestle with some of the world’s largest problems. De Grey compared aging to malaria, in that they’re both lethal. “The only real difference is that aging kills considerably more people.”

But all is not well in a future where we live for hundreds of years, as science writer Charles C. Mann has pointed out. In “The Coming Death Shortage,” an essay he wrote for The Atlantic in 2005, Mann argued that allowing people to live for long stretches of time will create an inequality of wealth not even dreamed of today.

“If high-level anti-aging therapy were expensive enough, it could become a perk for movie stars, politicians, and CEOs,” he writes. “Meanwhile, the maids, chauffeurs, and gofers of the rich will stare mortality in the face.”

And if you thought the squabble over Huguette Clark’s inheritance was messy, imagine the battle over generational wealth that could arise if we lived forever.

With no one dying, there is no wealth to pass down, or inherit. The old will get older — and richer. Compound interest over a current lifetime can make a fortune. Stretch this out over a few hundred years and you have something much larger than a fortune. The young and poor, meanwhile, will just stay poor.

As economist Kenneth Boulding wrote in 1965, “It is the propensity of the old, rich, and powerful to die that gives the young, poor, and powerless hope.”

And what would stop the natural, orderly succession of generations from being upended? Insurance companies likely won’t want to cover the pricey treatments but may be forced to by a government feeling fierce political pressure to avert such inequities.

“The result would be a tripartite society,” writes Mann, “the very old and very rich on top, betatesting each new treatment on themselves; a mass of the ordinary old, forced by insurance into supremely healthy habits, kept alive by medical entitlement; and the diminishingly influential young.”

For now, there’s the case of another old zillionaire: Warren Buffett, one of the richest people on Earth. If he were a generation younger, he also might have lived forever. But unlike the wealthy old people of the future, he’ll die.

Before then, though, he’s promised to address the future wealth disparity now, giving 99 percent of his fortune to charity. He’s already started donating to the Gates Foundation, which is fighting diseases in the developing world that stem from a society unprepared for the pressures of overpopulation.

Diseases like malaria.

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About The Author

Nicholas Deshais

Nicholas Deshais is a former news editor and staff writer for The Inlander. He has reported on city, county and state politics, as well as medical marijuana, transportation and development. In May 2012, he was named as a finalist for the prestigious Livingston Award for an Inlander story about (now former) Assistant...