Life Extension: Moral and Ethical Ramifications

Ever since the dawn of mankind, humans have sought to conquer their mortality. Ultimately though, ancient quests for longevity, like the Spanish search for the Fountain of Youth, have yielded nothing. Recent advances in medicine and biology have finally made this timeless desire a possibility in the near future. Through techniques like caloric reduction and the use of antioxidants and human growth hormone (HGH), scientists have already extended the lifespans of test rodents by forty percent.1

Though this is only a preliminary result, comparable results in humans could mean an increased lifespan of nearly thirty years. Despite the excitement that this possibility brings, the potential of immortality is fraught with social, moral, and ethical complications that ultimately outweigh its allure.

By studying the process of aging, scientists have established many theories on how to slow down the degenerative process. One popular theory of why aging occurs is that cells over time become damaged by “reactive oxygen species” which are created through many cellular processes, especially cellular respiration and the degeneration of mitochondria.1

In addition, the shortening of telomeres, essential structures for chromosome stability during cell division, have been strongly linked to tumor cells and replicative aging.2

To counteract these processes, some scientists have suggested a diet of caloric reduction, a regimen of antioxidants, and injection of HGH.

Caloric restriction has been proven to extend the maximum lifespan of houseflies, rats, fish, and cold-blooded animals in multiple reproducible experiments. In a regimen of caloric restriction, calorie intake is reduced while necessary nutrition is maintained. Caloric restriction rapidly results in a decrease in corticosterone, a steroid that regulates metabolism; a decline in blood glucose of approximately twenty percent; a decrease in metabolism; and lowered insulin levels of over fifty percent. In laboratory tests, eighty to ninety percent of approximately three hundred rodents exhibited a delay in both physiological and psychological aging. Similar tests on rhesus monkeys have produced the same type of results as those in rodents, with the same physiological effects.3

Antioxidants

Antioxidant research has been motivated by the hypothesis that aging is due to irreversible molecular oxidative damage; longer life expectancy in multiple species is reflective of lower amounts of oxidative damage. This oxidative damage is caused by reactive oxygen metabolites (ROMs) created through reactions of H­­2O2 and OH. High levels of ROMs result in damage to the cell membrane and DNA, while also interfering with the exchange of genetic information and the process of carbonylation of proteins. An increase in the body’s enzymatic anti-oxidative defenses has been shown to reduce this oxidative stress. Tests on transgenic flies with overexpressed anti-oxidative compounds that remove ROMs showed an increase of over thirty percent in average and maximum life span. They also experienced less DNA damage than the control group in which these compounds were at normal levels.3

Human Growth Hormone

Those worried about the repercussions of HGH deficiency and old age sometimes inject prescription HGH to reduce the effects of aging. Although not scientifically proven, reports indicate that HGH greatly reduces the symptoms of aging. As people age, production of HGH decreases; at age 30, HGH levels are only 20% of their childhood levels. As demonstrated by Jerry Emanuelson and multiple cited studies, most notably the Kabi International Metabolic Study, HGH therapy can reduce body fat, increase muscle tissue, reduce the appearance of age on the skin, regrow internal organs, increase bone density, reverse cognitive decline, and strengthen the immune system without evidence of long term detrimental effects.4

As life extension technology becomes more plausible now than ever, humans face the important question: just because we can, does that mean we should? At first glance, life extension seems very beneficial: it allows humans to enjoy life with better health and fitness for a longer time. However, the prospect of life extension brings up many potential  moral and social issues.

Moral Complications

The first issue is the problem of distribution. At first, life extension technology will be extremely expensive; therefore, it will likely only be available to the rich and influential. Longer lifespans could potentially allow the wealthy to amass unchecked power and wealth, resulting in a class of individuals dominating the rest of the population unexposed to these benefits.1 This gap could become very hard to overcome. As demonstrated by the recent Wall Street Protests, large income inequality could lead to not only exploitation and discontentment, but also widespread social unrest. In addition, life extension may result in the reduction of its value. With a longer average lifespan, the moral question of ending one’s own life or even another’s become ever more important and ever more permissible.1  This could have major implications on human reception of death as issues like genocide and euthanasia could be brought into a new, more acceptable light.

Social Complications

When contemplating the desirability of life extension, the good of society as a whole supersedes personal desire. First, according to Ker Than of LiveScience, longer lifespans could shift popular opinions of marriage: with life lasting potentially thirty years longer than it does now, marriage may be viewed as a long-term commitment rather than a “lifelong union,” increasing divorce and justifying polygamy.5  In addition, people would need to delay retirement and work for longer periods of their lives in order to sustain old age. This could hurt the economy in multiple ways: newly graduated students will not be able to find jobs amongst more experienced counterparts, and companies would become dominated by long-living individuals.

Overpopulation

The most threatening impact of human longevity is overpopulation. With generation turnover slowing and the human population approaching the projected carrying capacity, there could be greater and greater competition over resources. Even at the present day, population is booming – longer lifespans will only exacerbate this problem. With more people competing for the Earth’s limited resources, the environment could be taxed beyond the point of no return: water levels would drastically drop, oceans and coral reefs would be polluted and overfished, biodiversity would be lost to deforestation, and the atmosphere would be ravaged by pollution.6  Overpopulation’s impact on the living condition of humans could be just as terrible: fewer and fewer people would have access to clean water, the number of malnourished people would skyrocket, and disease would run rampant in cities that are ever more crowded.7 The long generational turnover due to increased lifespans would put the question of genocide into focus: the Earth can only sustain so many people and solving population pressure would require “radical changes” in popular moral perceptions of life and death.1

Ultimately, life extension is not the final prize; instead we must consider quality of life. Until the moral and social problems with life extension are resolved — if it is possible to resolve them at all — mankind must quench its desire for immortality for the greater good.

References

  1. Than, Ker. “The Ethical Dilemmas of Immortality,” LiveScience. 2006.
  2. Timiras P. “Telomeres,” UC Berkeley. 2008.
  3. Sohal, Rajindar & Weindruch, Richard. “Oxidative Stress, Caloric Restriction, and Aging,” Science. July 5, 1996.
  4. Emanuelson, Jerry. “The Life Extension Manual,” FutureScience. Accessed: May 16, 2011.
  5. Than, Ker. “Toward Immortality: “The Social Burden of Longer Lives,” LiveScience. May 22, 2006.
  6. Social Impacts of Overpopulation,” Accessed: May 16, 2011.
  7. United Nations Issues Wall Chart on Population, Environment and Development,” The United Nations in Vienna. April 5, 2001.
  8. Image credit (Free Art License): Pumpa, Kate. “BCRL,” Wikimedia Commons. December 8, 2010.
  9. Image credit (Creative Commons): Aldaman, Ronn. “Older Elderly Sister Looking Down — Bangkok,” Flickr. April 22, 2008.

Brandon Yang is a high school sophomore at the Harker School in San Jose, California. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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