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Science could cure death - but who wants to live forever?

Tom Vaughan
June 24, 2022

With modern-day billionaires continuing the millennia-old trend of seeking to prolong their lifetimes, Tom Vaughan asks whether this is really something people truly want.

Biohacking is booming. From Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey reportedly extolling the virtues of drinking 'salt juice' to coffee entrepreneur Dave Asprey injecting himself with stem cells, there's not a day goes by without some visionary or other attempting to 'hack' human biology in an attempt to live smarter, stronger and for longer.

Such is the hype that there are some who are even going a step further and pursuing immortality, led by a burgeoning group of 'extreme life extensionists' such as 73-year old Californian James Strole, who is said to take 70 supplements a day and goes as far as dubbing himself as an 'anti-death activist'.

Immortality or longevity, all biohackers are united by the need to push the body to its limits. Methods vary in extremes – ranging from the more 'traditional' such as ice baths and fasting, to the outright bonkers: implanting glucose monitors under your skin, plasma therapy (blood transfusions of 'young blood') and near-infrared saunas (to supposedly help ease stress from electromagnetic transmissions). And it's not confined to Silicon Valley obsessives either; ordinary people are spending thousands on this pursuit, backed up by recent data by Grand View Research which predicted the industry to reach $63.7 billion by 2028.

Yet this pursuit is not a new thing. In my book, Hope… And The Hedgehog, I write about kings, queens, emperors, pharaohs and paranoid individuals who have also sought ways to cheat death. The first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin Dynasty who reigned from 247 to 220 BC spent much of his time searching the world for the elusive herb that would enable him to live forever. His equally doomed back-up plan was to enter the next world, entombed with all his wealth, protected by an army of 6,000 terracotta soldiers. Important Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Saxons and Normans adopted similar futile methods, choosing to be buried with their chariots and other trappings of status and wealth.

Cheating time is a seductive goal. While Silicon Valley start-ups, funded by the likes of Paypal's Peter Thiel, tech billionaire Yuri Milner and a rumoured Jeff Bezos, insist their aims are not about increasing the lifespan but increasing the health span of humans, it is undoubtedly a compelling one for business. Should a way to make 90 the new 50 be found, the finder will unlock untold riches.

Science is also closing in on this race: in April researchers in Cambridge reprogrammed skin cells from people aged 38 and 53 to make them 'younger' by 30 years. A few weeks before that a group of scientists went a step further and brought dead eyes back to life from organ donors. They discovered that photosensitive neuron cells in the retina can react to light up to five hours after death. These neurons form part of the central nervous system (CNS), which encompasses the brain and spinal cord, bringing the possibility that other cells in the CNS could be similarly restored, perhaps bringing back consciousness.

Yet despite all this big money and big minds, is trying to delay death an expensive waste of time when bigger problems in the world such as inequality, cancer and poverty are crying out to be solved? After all, the figures have always stacked up against it: a 2017 study by Professor Joanna Masel from the University of Arizona used a mathematical model to demonstrate the inevitability of death regardless of whichever attempt at immortality is resorted to.

There remains, however, the most obvious question of all  – do we even want it? According to a new study by thinktank Theos and the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, six out of 10 people would reject the prospect of "scientific immortality" if it became an option. Dr Nick Spencer, one of the academics who led the research which came from a YouGov survey of more than 5,000 UK adults, concluded: "The top-line findings is the billionaires have to do quite well to sell this to at least the British public."

We need to remind ourselves that at some point we are all going to die anyway. And consider how depressing it might be to survive the end of civilisation as we know it.

It is interesting that this fear of death and the fevered desire to cling on to life seem to be particularly prevalent amongst the rich, despite the fact that we enter this world with absolutely nothing and leave it with absolutely nothing.

Millennia of history have shown us that death remains the natural conclusion to life. Yet, unfortunately, some people live their lives in fear of death, so much so that it robs them of the full joy of living.

Making friends with what is our unavoidable destiny is the only answer. As someone with a wry sense of humour facing an early death said in recent times, 'however you look at it we are all of us on the same journey, with the same inevitable outcome, on a flight departure to which only some are selected for Priority Boarding'.

In that same vein there is light-hearted wisdom in the words of New York Times bestselling author Anne Lamott who said, 'I view death as mostly a significant change of address'.

Perhaps biohackers should take note.

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Tom Vaughan is an entrepreneur and author of 'Hope... and the Hedgehog: Life? Death? And then what? Our personal quest..."
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