Is a Radically Longer Life Span—Even Immortality—in the Cards?

Mark Goebel


The odds of humans being dealt the medical equivalent of a royal flush—eliminating disease and slowing or stopping the aging process—may not be as long as we’ve been made to believe, according to scientists.


Some futurists think even more radical changes are in the offing: That humans will be able to use technology to solve “the problem of dying.”


How did humans go from living an average of 35 years two centuries ago to contemplating living a century or more, and, as crazy as it seems, where some perfectly rational scientists believe we can achieve the ultimate: immortality?


Before considering what doctors and scientists call “radical life extension,” it pays to look at where we were a relatively short time ago to appreciate how lucky we are that most of us will live to be at least 80.


The reasons humans have been living longer and healthier are both simple and complex. They include readily accessible clean water and midwives washing their hands before delivering babies to organ transplants and antibiotics.


Nasty, Brutish and Short


The 1651 quote by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, describes the lives of the vast majority of humans before the 19th century.


If you didn’t die in childbirth (which one in four babies did) the odds were less than 50 percent that you’d live to your teens.


Children died young and painfully from a wide variety of causes, including tuberculosis, worms, tonsillitis, and a host of other contagious diseases.


For adults, having survived childhood didn’t necessarily mean things were going to get better. Life could be equally as nasty, full of malnutrition, starvation, injuries, exposure to extreme weather, and poor sanitation. All killers on a scale unheard of today even in the most desperate of places. Add disease to the equation and it was rare indeed for someone to live past 70.


Cleanliness is Next to Godliness


Public health measures were responsible for much of the near doubling of average life expectancy from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s to around 65 -- the steepest in human history.


Readily available clean water was responsible for up to one-half of the overall reduction in morality, including three-quarters of the reduction in infant mortality, according to historians.


Poor sanitation in newly crowded cities often spread diseases such as cholera and typhoid.  Public works projects separating clean water from dirty water helped staunch the spread of deadly diseases, including cholera and typhoid, two of the biggest killers of the Industrial Revolution era.


Public health innovations, including sanitation, refuse management, milk pasteurization, and meat inspection, played an important role as well.


Improvements in diet and hygiene also lowered mortality by reducing malnutrition and the spread of diseases and the onset of illness.

Medicine Takes a Huge Leap Forward


Since WWII, medical advances have been responsible for our current expectation to lead long, and, hopefully, relatively healthy lives.


Newer drugs, better understanding of how diseases occur and ways to prevent their onset, and technological advances have vastly improved patient care and helped extend life from an average of 66 years in 1960 to 76 years in 2012 for males, and for females from 73 to 81 years.


However, the biggest medical breakthrough extending lives occurred in the early part of the 20th century; namely antibiotics to treat infections caused by bacteria. Thanks to antibiotics, many illnesses once considered death sentences became treatable.


The list of medical breakthroughs the last 60 years is long and growing. It includes chemotherapy to kill cancer cells, insulin to treat diabetes, prescription drugs and surgical procedures to reduce the risk of heart disease and attacks, vaccines that have eliminated diseases such as smallpox, and advances in surgery and emergency room care.



Technology Empowering Doctors


Over the last several decades, technology has come to play a big role in preventing and treating illness.


CT scanners enable doctors to detect tumors and other disorders that couldn’t be seen on X-rays.


Medical instruments made of fiber optics enable doctors to perform non-invasive, less dangerous surgeries and to see areas of the body that were previously inaccessible.


Angioplasty procedures clear arteries, and stents keep them open.

Radical Life Extension


Humans could well be on the verge of another medical revolution—one that could push our life expectancy to more than 100 years by the end of the 21st century.


Until recently, the possibility of radically extending human life has been regulated to science fiction.


Our understanding of why we age was not developed enough to realistically believe life could be extended beyond what is considered a disease-free body’s maximum potential, 80 to 90 years.


Today, scientists are pursing treatments that could extend our average life span by decades—or more.


Major breakthroughs, which won’t come for another decade or so, such as gene therapy, aren’t a given even by the most optimistic of scientists.


Nonetheless, we may be on the verge of a new aging paradigm, one in which 120 becomes the new 80 or 90.


The most promising route to radically extending human life is genetic engineering.


Scientists are working on identifying the genes that cause humans to become ill or age.


Drugs developed through genetic engineering already offer effective therapies for a number of diseases, including cancer and heart disease.


Medical researchers and scientists hope to be able conquer those diseases and others through gene therapy.


If they can come up with a way to replace “bad” genes, the ones that cause diseases such as cancer, with good genes, without triggering harmful side effects, illnesses such as leukemia could become a thing of the past.


Dr. Aubrey de Grey, chief science officer for aging research center, contends aging will be conquered through a variety of rejuvenation biotechnologies that will repair and maintain the body indefinitely.


According to Dr. de Grey, various treatments, including stem cell and gene therapies, would be applied at the cellular level to halt the damage to the body by aging.

Curing Death


Some experts, most prominent among them Ray Kurzweil, computer scientist and inventor of store checkout scanners to the first music synthesizer, believe aging, even death, will be conquered by engineers and computer scientists.


Kurzweil believes technology will give man the ability to place machines in the human body to replace existing biological systems, and by 2045, we’ll have machines that will be able to backup our minds into the cloud.


Greater computing power combined with nanotechnology will allow doctors to put microscopic machines in the body, initially to protect people’s organs and ultimately to replace them, the engineering director at Google says.


Where 16TH century explorer Juan Ponce de Leon believed in the Fountain of Youth, Kurzweil and his ilk believe that man will achieve immortality by fully merging with machines.  Kurzweil is part of a team at Google charged by CEO Larry Page with finding a cure for aging.


In his 2005 book, “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” Kurzweil posits that we’ll achieve mortality by downloading human consciousness onto the cloud.


“Our ability to reverse engineer the brain—to see inside, model it, and stimulate its regions—is growing exponentially,” he writes.


In Kurweil’s scenario, our blood, bone, skin, and organs, what he calls our “wetware,” will no longer be needed.


Once this reverse engineering is complete humans will be able to live potentially forever, the 65-year-old concludes. 


The Fountain of Youth may end up being real after all, but filled with miniature computer chips instead of water.





Some of the Surprising and not-so-Surprising contributors to the longevity revolution:



Air Conditioning


Window Screens


Clean Air



Prescription Drugs


Organ Transplants

Smoking Bans


Author Bio:

Mark Goebel is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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Karen Roe (Flickr); NIAID (Flickr); Pedrosimoes (Flickr); Military Health (Flickr)
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