The great spikes in longevity across most of the world can be attributed to advances in food sanitation and safety, as well as science or, specifically, drugs. A century ago, contaminated foods and water caused foodborne diseases to flourish. Typhoid fever, tuberculosis and botulism were among the diseases that cut life short.
The next longevity wave, scientific consensus has it, will ride on pharmacological advances aimed at halting or reversing aging. Living to 100 or longer could be a reasonable expectation for those born in the next generation or so. Just a century ago, the average life span fell short of 50; today, it’s fast approaching 80.
Scientists, biogerontologists and other aging experts are exploring whether aging can be slowed or reversed with pharmaceuticals. Some schools of research go so far as to hypothesize that aging is a condition, a disease class of its own that can be cured someday, rather than being a natural organic cycle.
But looking to drugs to improve quality of life in old age will result in false hope; aging gracefully will increasingly be the responsibility of the individual.
As a 2014 story in The Atlantic magazine put it:
“Drugs that lengthen health span are becoming to medical researchers what vaccines and antibiotics were to previous generations in the lab: their grail. If health-span research is successful, pharmaceuticals as remarkable as those earlier generations of drugs may result. In the process, society might learn the answer to an ancient mystery: Given that every cell in a mammal’s body contains the DNA blueprint of a healthy young version of itself, why do we age at all?”
But the expectations and promises of science — from curing cancer to reversing chronic degenerative diseases — have largely fallen short.
No quality of life, no choice
As the human race, with few exceptions, faces a longer life span, quality-of-life issues will become more prominent. Life span and a healthy life span are not the same thing. There’s no assurance that keeping humans alive longer equates to a quality of life worth living. The path of science may increase life expectancy, but a better understanding of how to improve quality of life will lag behind.
That potential outcome leaves us with an essential and unanswered question: As dementia, crumbling bones, macular degeneration, obesity-driven diseases and diabetes-related ailments increasingly rob us of a smooth walk to the kitchen or a coherent conversation with a neighbor, what is the quality-of-life cost to living a drastically longer life?
The Trends Research Institute’s study of the Artful Aging trend line has focused on the so-far untapped potential to serve seniors with products, services and life experiences that add meaning and dimension to their lives. Part of that intensifying trend will be the right of aging individuals to have the ultimate say whether a pain-driven, drug-dependent, immobile, empty life is worth living.
Artful Aging impresses on the need for seniors to have the space and freedom to choose creative, self-fulfilling paths in their later years. That is soon to include a more robust, non-political fight for compassionate right-to-die rights.
We cite that fight as critical because it goes largely unfulfilled at present. Most products and services marketed to the growing old-age demographic are based on the medical industry’s efforts to keep them living longer — dominated by coping products, from high-tech walkers to chair escalators that navigate stairways at home, from feeding tubes to respirators.
Longer lives create more need for these products and services. But at some point, coping becomes detrimental to the individual, loved ones and society. The path of emotional and physical emptiness transitions into more pain and suffering.
We can legally euthanize pets, who may be blind, in pain, mentally lost and frightened, but our loved ones, who crave the same rights, are forced to artificially prolong their agony. Pets are put to sleep out of compassion — no law, religion or governmental entity stands in the way. Lawmakers end the pain and suffering of their own pets, but fail to pass laws that advance compassionate euthanasia for humans. Do pets count more than people, or people more than pets?