When Death Gets Disrupted
Read our series Future Watch by Colin Cullis
You can live long, and you can live well. Ideally, you would like both. In the past, your genes and wealth would be the most significant factors, and that remains the case. But a greater understanding of the conditions that affect us, and better ways to treat or even prevent them, might see us chase the Grim Reaper further away than at any other time in history.
I will separate the efforts to extend life from the efforts to make death less scary. It is fair to say that this and the next generation will not cheat death, but the idea that future generations may achieve a form of immortality is looking less like science fiction than ever before.
At best I can only offer a summary of why humans age and die. We may assume that all things die, but their lifespans would look like immortality compared to ours. From 400-year-old sharks to 500-year-old clams, to 5 000-year-old trees, the range of the oldest organisms makes our 100-year lives seem very short. But theirs is short, too, compared to the estimated age of sponges in Antarctica that are believed to be 15 000 years old.
They are not immortal because, should conditions change or they move from their environment, they will die. In that respect nothing is immortal.
What they lack is senescence which is the combined effects of the process we call ageing. For the most part, we age as a result of damage over time. The impact of the sun, our habits, constant attacks by bacteria and viruses, and physical injury.
Even if we took excellent care of ourselves, we would still die because in many animals, and particularly in mammals, our cells are programmed to stop replicating and die. Programmed cell death might sound like your body is out to get you and, in the end, it is, but you need first to understand why it does so in the first place.
You probably assume you are who you always have been. The reality is that you are mostly a teenage version of yourself. Cells divide to maintain the body, and if they kept dividing but did not die you would keep growing. Your skin is constantly shedding as the elements damage and scrape at it. Cuts get healed by filling the wound. Even undamaged cells will stop dividing once they have replicated about 50 times.
You are arguably a new person every 20 years because most of the cells that existed to make you would have died and been replaced by new ones. Some parts of your brain, eyes and teeth don’t get replaced, but most of you is new.
The rapid cell division and replacement is excellent for recovering from an injury or disease and also to find useful mutations, but the rapid division is also a risk as the cell could turn cancerous. Skin and intestinal cells are frequently renewed, in part the reason cancers of those organs are so common.
So far, this has looked at the past, but what does it say about the future and how we might live to beyond 100? There is one more remarkable piece from the past. A sample of cervical cancer cells that claimed the life of Henrietta Lacks in 1951. It was found that, unlike any other human cells, the cells in this
sample did not stop dividing.
They still are, and from that small sample, a massive number of cells have been cultured, many more than make up a human and enough to weigh many tons. Could this be the secret to us living forever? Perhaps, but the cells are so different from human cells some consider them a new kind of cell altogether. However, the 60 000 studies relating to those cells have allowed us to begin looking for ways to keep cell divisions occurring without the cells degrading over time.
Until that happens, we need to focus on limiting the damage and improving the optimal conditions to look after the ones we do have.
This is where technology begins to play a more significant role. At the most basic, health monitors like the Apple watch, mentioned in an earlier article, can keep us moving and spot a potential problem before it becomes dangerous.
Eating well and staying active will get us far if there are no major genetic issues, so the next part is the stimulation needed to keep us mentally active too. More forms of entertainment and more activities that allow us to remain engaged in society are critical.
Changing the way we approach retirement is also crucial. South African law does not specify when you have to retire, but most retirement plans are between 60 and 70. The idea of rewiring rather than retiring suggests we plan for a second phase after we stop our formal work, but stay active and engaged with work of some sort for as long as possible. In many countries, there is just no option but to keep working. Depending on the work it could be very good or bad.
We are creatures of habit and, if you have been independent and have taken care of yourself for most of your life, you would typically not want to give that up. Here, too, technology is looking to help, with smart, virtual assistants to monitor and manage many activities in the home, as well as summon help should it be required. It is likely that, for those who are not too afraid of the current generation of robot assistants, they might be able to serve as carers in the future, always prepared and ready to help us.
As our lives become more digital, our plans for how to be remembered will change too. Facebook is the planet’s largest social network and also the world’s largest digital graveyard. It has updated how it deals with accounts of those who have died since it began in 2004, and you can now nominate a person that will be given access to your profile when you die and allow it to remain as a memorial for friends and family to continue to post and celebrate your life in the same way we might place flowers on a grave.
Wills are changing, with passwords being included and instructions on what should be done with your digital assets as well as your real ones. For funerals, some create videos and slideshows to be shown once they are gone, or create the playlist for their wakes.
In circumstances when a terminal illness will result in a significant loss of quality of life, we may see assisted suicides and euthanasia becoming less of a taboo.
In 2014, Brittany Maynard (29) was diagnosed with a brain tumour that would claim her life and, rather than wait for it to progress, she opted to go on a trip, celebrate her husband’s birthday and then end her life with friends and family around her. She made her decision public, to assist others facing the same choice, and used a final Facebook public post to say:
‘Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love. Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me… but would have taken so much more. The world is a beautiful place; travel has been my greatest teacher, my close friends and folks are the greatest givers.
I even have a ring of support around my bed as I type… Goodbye world. Spread good energy. Pay it forward!’
Death is not something that we will be able to avoid anytime soon, but is something that can be delayed and managed and made less scary. In time we will find a way to capture our memories not just in pictures and videos, but perhaps even as our conscious self.
We have been augmenting our physical bodies with mechanical and digital versions for many years. From prosthetic limbs to pacemakers and hearing aids, the slow progression prevented major moral or ethical objections. Should we ever be able to replace our biological body for a digital one, though, it will not only be a question about whether we can, but whether we should.
Religious beliefs make future opportunities difficult to navigate. Humans, as far as we can tell, have regarded death as a significant life event for all of our known history, and that is unlikely to change. But until then, celebrate your life and the loved ones around you.
Because, even though Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment lived to a ripe old age of 122 years and 164 days, making her the oldest recorded human to have lived in modern times, it is still just a blink of an eye to the Greenland shark at 400 or the quahog clam at 500, and indeed the Antarctic glass sponge at 15 000 years.
Shown is life expectancy at birth in 1950, which corresponds to an estimate of the average numbers of years a newborn infant would live if prevailing patterns of mortality at the time of birth were to stay the same throughout life. (Graphic Our World in Data)
Shown is life expectancy at birth in 2015, which corresponds to an estimate of the average numbers of years a newborn infant would live if prevailing patterns of mortality at the time of birth were to stay the same throughout life. (Graphic Our World in Data)