How long do you want to live? It’s not that we can determine how many years we will be on this earth, not exactly. We do have something to do with it, though. Most obviously, we can take care of ourselves–eat healthy foods, exercise, not smoke or drive too fast or drink too much.
As medical science learns more and more about longevity, it’s starting to look as if more can be done to extend our span of healthy years. Some researchers even think our lives can be extended indefinitely. A recent article by staff writer Tad Friend in the New Yorker distinguishes between longevity scientists who are “healthspanners” and those who are “immortalists.” The former group, who constitute the majority, aim to provide us with longer lives in which we will remain healthy until the last year or two. The latter group hope to reverse aging itself, so that anyone able to afford whatever treatments are developed could live indefinitely. Friend describes a recent symposium on longevity held in Norman Lear’s living room and attended by scientists, Hollywood stars, and wealthy investors. One of the speakers, Martine Rothblatt (founder of the biotech firm United Therapeutics) promised, “Clearly, it is possible, though technology, to make death optional.”
Even in that gathering there were scientists who disagreed. They are among the healthspanners, and they don’t expect a holy grail–some incredible discovery that will put an end to aging. They are looking to do more of what’s been done over the past hundred years or so, a period in which the average life span has increased by thirty years. Eric Verdin, CEO of the Buck Institute for Aging, told Friend that recently the median life expectancy for people living in developed nations has been increasing at a rate of about two and a half years a decade. He added, “If we can keep that pace up for the next two hundred years, and increase our life spans by forty years, that would be incredible.” That would give our great-great-great-great grandchildren life expectancies of about a hundred and twenty years. If they are vigorous and healthy during those years, that would amount to quite an accomplishment. Living 120 years isn’t anything near to living forever, though.
Friend nicely summarizes the biological process of aging and what has come of past claims that that process can be arrested:
“For us, aging is the creeping and then catastrophic dysfunction of everything, all at once. Our mitochondria sputter, our endocrine system sags, our DNA snaps. Our sight and hearing and strength diminish, our arteries clog, our brains fog, and we falter, seize, and fail. Every research breakthrough, every announcement of a master key that we can turn to reverse all that, has been followed by setbacks and confusion.”
Will the master key to aging eventually be found? Some very wealthy people are putting significant resources into the search. The story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis tells of “the tree of life” found in the center of the garden of Eden. Once Adam and Eve have sinned by eating of the tree of good and evil, God decides not to let them “take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Gen. 3:22). In order to keep them away from that tree, he expels them from the garden.
Throughout the ages, humans have dreamed about putting an end to aging, but had no viable way to do this. Now the immortalists hope that modern science will allow them to break back into the garden and eat from the tree of life. We’ll see how that goes. The Bible offers another route to immortality, namely by way of death and resurrection. The Apostle Paul explains that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (I Cor. 15:20) As a result, everyone will return to life: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (v. 52) Some may put their hope in scientific discovery; I’m counting instead on the promised Day of the Lord.