A Swedish hospital recently announced that a cancer patient was saved after doctors grew him a new windpipe in the lab using a synthetic structure and the man’s own stem cells. That might have sounded like science fiction just a few years ago, but today it is landmark news. Regenerative medicine has the ability to usher in radically longer and healthier lives, yet few are considering the implications.
The ability to grow new replacement parts for humans when original organs break down is a game-changer when it comes to extending human “health spans” — the amount of time one is alive and healthy. A handful of human subjects have already benefited from innovations in this area and dozens of organs have been successfully grown in the lab, including a rat heart.
The science is not easy, but because of the exponential growth of technological tools, it is moving faster than many had expected. Such growth has happened before.
I’d Like a Tune-up, Please
Better nutrition, sanitation, and pharmaceuticals allowed for the extension of life expectancy from a meager 43 years in 1850 to the almost 80 years it is now. Once regenerative medicine hits the mainstream, human life expectancy will similarly skyrocket. Soon it will be possible to maintain a human body like a vintage car: When something goes wrong, replace some parts and then be on your way.
If the replacement strategy works well enough, it is not a stretch to imagine an average life expectancy of 150 years. In fact, some scientists already think that the first person to live to 150 has already been born. What will that mean for society, and why hasn’t the dialog begun?
The impact will be nothing short of revolutionary. People will work for longer periods of time than they do today, but they will be healthy and therefore productive. Consider that the gains in life expectancy in America between 1970 to 2000 added about US$3.2 trillion per year to national wealth. But what about population growth — will it spiral out of control?
It is true that the world’s population is still growing, but it is also true that the rate at which it is growing is slowing down. Officials in many countries today are worried about population decline and shortage of workers.
When scholars at the University of Chicago asked what would happen if the entire population of Sweden were to become immortal, they found that Sweden’s population would increase by only 22 percent over 100 years.
This might surprise some, but cutting death rates doesn’t affect population as much as we might think. Heavy population growth really comes from births — not fewer deaths. And when it comes to births, one might ask about family and whether fertility will also be extended.
Choose Long Life
In a world in which people live longer, decisions about when to get married will shift considerably, particularly if it is relatively easy to put off childbearing for longer periods of time. In that quest, research is proceeding at a furious pace, and there has been some success at freezing a woman’s own eggs so she can have her own biological children later in life.
The coming changes will be enormous — but on the whole, positive. Why then, is there no sustained dialog about how to get to that point sooner? In America, a large part of funding for regenerative medicine comes from the Department of Defense, whose goal is to repair soldiers who come home wounded.
That is an effort everyone recognizes as important. Yet, when it comes to repairing older people whose hearts and lungs are failing, society seems at peace accepting their demise because that is all humanity has ever known — a state of mind that some call the “pro-death trance.”
Humans now have the opportunity to live much longer and healthier lives — for the greater benefit of all. It is time to break free from the pro-death trance and work toward speeding the revolution.