We want bet­ter lives, not longer ones

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - Ste­wart Dak­ers

“A hun­dred and ruddy 20 … within 30 years, that’s what they’re say­ing … just imag­ine, be­ing 50 again … af­ter all, we are sim­ply ma­te­rial cells … ah, but what about the mind?”

A post-bingo con­ver­sa­tion with some of my crumbly friends in the com­mu­nity cen­tre. We are dis­cussing the new prospect of amor­tal­ity. It has cre­ated a ma­jor row among aca­demics, with the pub­li­ca­tion of a pa­per by Jan Vijg, an emi­nent ge­neti­cist, sug­gest­ing there is an up­per limit of around 115 years be­fore we shuf­fle off this mor­tal coil be­ing vig­or­ously chal­lenged by Pro­fes­sor Jim Vau­pel, a spe­cial­ist in age­ing, and col­leagues, who main­tain there is no ceil­ing on longevity.

Amor­tal­ity is the cur­rent cherry on the sci­en­tific cake. The ba­sic creed seems to be that all our or­gans are sim­ply ma­chines that, like car parts, start to mal­func­tion with use and age, and that, to con­tinue the anal­ogy, can be ei­ther re­paired or re­placed.

Age­ing is an is­sue on which, as a mem­ber of the crumbly gen­er­a­tion, I feel I can com­ment with author­ity. Not only am I old, I also spend a day a week work­ing with peo­ple with early-on­set de­men­tia. From my per­spec­tive, the amor­tal­ity pro­posal is the prod­uct of aca­demic hubris. It does not fac­tor in the re­al­ity of longevity.

I would ap­peal to the sci­en­tific elite to stop squab­bling over the med­i­cal equiv­a­lent of an­gels on pin­heads and to use their priv­i­leged talents to at­tend to the real needs of the el­derly.

We need pur­pose not re­dun­dancy, mean­ing not ir­rel­e­vance, dig­nity not dis­tress. In other words, we sim­ply want to lead bet­ter lives, not longer ones.

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