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Will our kids never die?

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Bolivia's President Evo Morales greets Carmelo Flores, a native Aymara, outside Flores' home in the village of Frasquia, Bolivia, Monday, Sept. 16, 2013. If Bolivia's public records are correct, Flores is the oldest living person ever documented. They say he turned 123 in July.

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Bolivia's President Evo Morales greets Carmelo Flores, a native Aymara, outside Flores' home in the village of Frasquia, Bolivia, Monday, Sept. 16, 2013. If Bolivia's public records are correct, Flores is the oldest living person ever documented. They say he turned 123 in July.

The drones of the 22nd century burst into the cafeteria, exuberant and famished, granted a brief respite from their long day of using 20th-century tools (desktop computers, erasable markers) and mastering 16th-century skills (telling time, counting coins).

These four hundred pupils at a suburban public elementary school – my eight-year-old daughter among them — are either the luckiest or the unluckiest children ever conceived. They are destined to live and labour with purpose and wisdom into their 15th decade and beyond; or doomed, conversely, to suffer in debility, dementia and penury an 80-year retirement, or endure a 100-year marriage to the same, nagging spouse.

They’ll be first to live forever, or just to feel as if they have.

"Immortality is not as crazy as it sounds," I heard an expert announce in October at a conference called The Future of Longevity, held at the headquarters of a 19th-century institution called The Washington Post. "The only requirement is for technology to increase faster than you’re aging."

In the developed world, we were informed, life expectancy has been increasing by about one-quarter year per year since 1850. This means that the Canadian or Singaporean or Swede alive today can expect to linger 40 years longer than did his great-great-great-great-great-aunt.

"Just bend the curve to one year per year, and we never die," the speaker said.

Think of this: there are now more codgers aged 60 and older on our planet than there are kids under five.

Three weeks later, at the National Institutes of Health, I met some of the genomic geniuses who are striving to give our children and our grandchildren a shot at a much-elongated lifespan and healthspan, if not (yet) eternity.

These are the pioneers of the new and burgeoning field of "geroscience," the biochemists and bioengineers who seek to solve one of nature’s most tantalizing riddles: why do we get sick and frail and confused and weak, just because we have grown older?

"How is it that aging enables so many diseases to happen?" was the way an investigator named Brian Kennedy put it in his keynote address.

"We didn’t evolve to live to 80 years of age," Dr. Kennedy said, noting that "changes in signalling" seem to be occurring deep inside our cells as the years go by. "A world in which 20 per cent of the human population is over the age of 60 was not envisioned by four billion years of evolution."

But now it was possible to invoke a cosmos for our descendants in which 60 is not different from 16; a Shangri-La where physical fitness and intellectual acuity have been decoupled from the ticking of the clock.

"Aging is about damage," Brian Kennedy said. But this was damage that, in mice at least, new medicines were seeming to be able to postpone, overrule, and even reverse. They were compounds with names like rapamycin and acarbose that soon may be the One A Days of my daughter’s breakfast table.

"The idea of giving drugs to healthy people to keep them healthy still hasn’t resonated," Dr. Kennedy noted. Soon it will.

Yet it was true that, even as the geroscientists progressed steadily toward the understanding and conquest of cellular dilapidation and inevitable death, computer engineers were racing just as fast or faster to obviate the human brain and body altogether and replace them with cybernetic super-things.

A few years back, I met John M. Smart, the prominent "scholar of accelerated change," at a congress of the World Future Society in Chicago and asked him how he thinks human beings will relate to the Braniacs of the coming decades.

"We’ll be their house plants," John Smart said.

Back in the cafeteria, I pictured my third-grader widowed at 99 and living for 60 or 70 more years as the pet of a bionic beagle.

Then I went home and found within an important 18th-century innovation — my mailbox — a special issue of a magazine called the FUTURIST.

"The twenty-first century will be equivalent to twenty thousand years of progress at today’s rate of progress," it predicted without blinking. "Today, it’s as if we’re driving 200 miles an hour and only looking out of the rear-view mirror."

 

— Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

 

 

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