MBAER Bank - The Swiss Merchant Bank

The Bank with a Soul

The worship of longevity.

Many scientists are taking life extension seriously. Ageing-researchers want to make people live longer and increase the healthy part of the lifespan by reducing the frail part of the lifetime as much as possible. Therein lies the problem.

First, the belief that people will enthusiastically embrace life extension technologies is an exaggeration, as in reality people yearn for the familiar immortality and eternal youth. Life extension is just a consolation prize with several unattractive features. In fact, the prospect of larger cohorts of individuals living up to the maximum lifespan of 115 years has adverse consequences for the economy, for single individuals and, to some extent, from an ethical perspective.

Second, researchers in academic labs do not know how to prevent neurodegeneration, and pharma companies keep on reporting failures in yet another Alzheimer's drug clinical trial. As the greatest risk factor associated with developing Alzheimer disease is ageing, increased longevity may lead to a potentially catastrophic increase in the number of people suffering from age-related dementias, according to biologist Coleen T. Murphy.

The Methuselah factory

The newly created "longevity science" is called geroscience. The good news is that ageing-researchers support the traditional prescriptions for a healthy and long life. If you want to live longer, as we were told by our doctor, eat less, exercise regularly and sleep ­– and be lucky to have "good" longevity genes and access to good health care. Fact is that long-lived people live longer by staying healthier longer. Interviews with centenarians reveal additional secrets to longevity, including kindness, not having children, avoiding men, smoking 30 cigarettes per day (or not smoking), drinking whisky (or abstaining from alcohol). In short, take your pick for a disease-free long life, geroscientists say.

Yet, the ageing process would continue, as indicated by our physiological changes such as wrinkled faces, gray hair, slow pace, which happen when we go from being young to old.

Back to lab research, in the simplest biological models, ageing is what happens when cells are not able to repair fast enough. The research agenda has been organized around the mechanisms contributing to ageing, the so-called "hallmarks of ageing". Things like DNA damage, cellular senescence, proteins and telomere degradation (don’t ask) are widely accepted as processes that accelerate ageing when deteriorating and slow ageing when improving, according to the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing. Lab research routinely conducted on worms, flies, yeast, and mice has largely contributed to the understanding of the mechanisms regulating ageing, leading to the discovery that drugs such as metmorfin and resveratrol seem to be capable of slowing ageing and increase lifespan.

Crucially, as geroscientists are basic scientists they are less concerned about preserving the quality of life or health span for aged people, including mental health and psychological health. There is no consensus on the measurement of these crucial social aspects of health, raising serious doubts about geroscience's genuine progress and achievements.   

Varieties of immortality

Despite these shortcomings, discoveries by longevity scientists and the explosion of anti-ageing biotech companies have created the expectations that we will soon be able to take drugs that will significantly extend our lifespan. The news that tech idols Peter Thiel, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Jeff Bezos invested in anti-ageing startups, made it appear safe assuming that life-extending therapies are on the verge of "writing immortality into the genes of the human race", in the words of a biologist.

Virtually every culture has developed a concept of immortality. For the Western culture, the Greek and the Christian views of immortality represent different but quite positive visions of eternal life. The Olympian gods and goddesses, portrayed like beautiful human beings, enjoy immense power and influence. The Christian promise of the eternal life in Heaven is a state of perpetual bliss for the immortal soul after death. As an example of negative representation of eternal life, Borges describes immortals as apathetic troglodytes, numbed by the boredom of their endless, unchanging days. The point is that scientific research aimed at "writing immortality into the genes of the human race" might not deliver a desirable existence for many people either for religious reasons or for the reason that only in a finite existence life and actions have a meaning.

Stagnation and pension systems' sustainability

Increasing longevity, declining fertility and young people cohorts' transition to older ages agitate economists and politicians, who are concerned about the economic impact of ageing populations. The logic behind economists' concerns is that population ageing is a major drag on economic growth, due to a shrinking working population causing lower labor input growth; savings' decrease, as accumulated wealth is used up by retirees; labor productivity decline; and, finally, fading innovation. The effects of these patterns are plausible and, empirically, are found to be significantly large in ageing economies. In addition, an ageing population poses formidable challenges to public and private pension systems and the prospect of increasing longevity will only exacerbate this problem, as we argued previously.

Society and single individuals are barely prepared for a lifespan extending beyond the current life expectancy of about 80 years.

The quest for life extension has yet to address the hardest scientific (preservation of health span), economic (stagnation and pension systems' sustainability) and cultural (collision with Western culture and values) challenges. The worshipers of longevity seem also to forget that life span is long enough if time is properly employed, which, I suspect, it only rarely is.

Francesco Mandalà, PhD

To make this website run properly and to improve your experience, we use cookies.

For more detailed information, please check our Cookie Policy.

  • Necessary cookies enable core functionality. The website cannot function properly without these cookies, and can only be disabled by changing your browser preferences.