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How Long Can We Live? (nytimes.com)
58 points by khartig 11 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 79 comments

The older Japan data is questionable.[1] A few years ago, the city of Tokyo sent people out to check on everyone over 100. Many turned out to be pension fraud; the person had died years ago but someone was still cashing the checks.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/world/asia/15japan.html

That's interesting. In India, all pensioners have to go to treasury once a year in person to prove they are still alive!

Is that a side effect of "gaming the system" being part of the culture?

Since they gamed the system in Japan too, maybe in India they're not that much more likely to game things, and the cultural difference is just knowing and admitting that people do it and taking countermeasures.

It is likely because of the 'culture of gaming'. The system has been in place ever since I remember which is at least 25+ years. The treasury sends a letter to verify "hayati" which translates roughly to "alive and well". Treasury also asks pensioners to update their picture periodically (every 3 years or so) so that when the pensioner shows up, they can match them with their picture on file. I know this because my mom has been a pensioner after my dad's demise ever since I remember.

Longer does not always equal better. The quality of the extended lifespan is key. But, if you could guarantee quality of life, there is still a bimodal distribution I find among my peers - "Why would you want to live forever?" and "Why wouldn't you want to live forever?"

FWIW, I'm in the "Why wouldn't you want to live forever?". Think of all the things to do and learn and experience and relearn. Ask me again in 10,000 years though.

I was of the "live forever" ilk for a long time, but now I don't think I would. If you think about it when people say they would want to live forever, there are some disclaimers there. Such as: assuming society remains generally decent. Imagine being stuck in some horror show of a society where you are a heavily abused slave for centuries. Or maybe someone decides to imprison you in isolation for a really long time. Then there's the fact of seeing everyone you care about die, which would seem to get really old after a while.

Plus, I'm kinda developing an intense curiosity about what's after death. Maybe just the void. Maybe wakeup in a simulation to some dreary existence. Maybe float around on clouds with a harp. I have no idea and it drives me crazy sometimes! (not to curious, because what if the afterlife is awful!)

Genuine belief: I think we already have an excellent example of what the afterlife is like- try remembering what your experiences were like in the 14-odd billion years the universe existed before you were born.

Definitely have thought about exactly that numerous times! I find it kind of comforting when I get freaked out about the "no longer exist" path.

And this person that was you, a decade ago. Does it still fully exist? Should it?

Lots of fascinating thoughts and philosophy and experimentation and readings on all this stuff. I was deep into it during college and a lot of my 20s. I got back into it a bit during the pandemic year (I'm 50 now), mostly spurred by reading "Consciousness and the Brain" by Stanislas Dehaene (a fantastic, science-based look into what we have figured out about consciousness). Plus turning 50 makes you realize the 20 year old version of yourself really is a whole different person. Not to mention parenting, and how your 12 year old is absolutely a different human than when he was 5, and seeing them realize it. Life is weird.

I wish I could remember the book or author, but I remember reading a scifi story some years ago in which a main part of the world was indefinitely extended lifespans and health-spans.

A couple of items that shifted the readers' perspective were the 28 year old character who misstated her age as 104 to make herself seem more interesting, and that many people in the 400-500 year-old range picked up high risk sports as out of growing boredom with multiple careers and pursuits...

(if anyone recognizes and remembers the story, it'd be great to know what it is!)

Futu.re by Dmitry Glukhovsky?

I’m also in the “why wouldn’t you want to live forever” camp, but for selfish reasons. I’m of the opinion that for our species and society, a limited lifespan is a net benefit, as a motivator and as a way for popular opinion to change. Generally I do not think people are good at changing their stances, especially as they age.

Or, people are not good at changing their stances as they approach death. In game-theoretic “explore vs exploit” terms, the closer you get to the end of the game, the less value there is in exploration. If people lived to 200, would we see 150 years of “young and reckless” or 150 years of “old and stodgy”? I tend to lean toward the former, but of course nobody knows for sure.

I fall under this belief too. I think people also over estimate the lack of exploration done in older years. Culture changes too fast for a lack of exploration strategy to exist in older populations. In developed nations it is far more acceptable to be gay, an ethnic minority, etc than it was 50 years ago. While this still takes longer than we'd like it is faster than what you'd expect if we required people to die off for culture to change (we've all but forgotten discrimination of Caucasian minorities, like the Irish and Polish, that was so prevalent even in the 60's and 70's). Things have drastically changed since the 90's even.

I'd also argue that another factor in the "explore vs exploit" strategy is fear (which encompasses fear of death). If you view your world as dangerous then it makes sense that you should focus on an exploitation strategy over an exploration strategy. The world is becoming far safer (despite American perception) and I think this is helping accelerate this cultural change too. I'd expect that if we lived to 200 we'd treat people in their 50's/60's like we do people in their 20's now, and I'd expect them to act similarly too (under the premise that health degrades in this new age system as our current age system).

Though honestly we'll never know until we do it. I do think fear of trying it is dangerous though. One of our advantages as humans is the fact that we tend to use an exploration strategy more than many other species. We've also gotten pretty good at mitigating risk while exploring dangerous territories. But that's how we push forward technological advancements.

"Ask me again in 10,000 years though" - PERFECT response.

I figure it'd take 10,000 years to gain enough knowledge to know what all your options are!

If the DO ask in 10,000 years, you should ask them what they are doing there and tell them not to bother you for a few hundred thousand years while you try a few things out.

Interesting take. However, consider that if one could learn multiple lifetimes of knowledge in one, it might achieve the same result. I’ve been developing a mindset called omnidisciplinary thinking (or “Thinking OMNI”) which encourages us to Engage with the Root of ideas and thought patterns in order to recognize and leverage their interconnectedness. The Root assumptions we make influence heavily how we can express and explore ideas. One can only express in a given language what that language allows. Right now, we have a boundary- and disciplinary-driven engagement with both knowledge and organizational structures which while a valid way to see the world isn’t the only way. The Thinking OMNI thought pattern is being made rigorous as we speak, yet even an intuitive understanding of it can help you today to manage complexity and reduce uncertainty.

Check us out on YouTube—“Omni Artisans”. If one could reduce the amount of effort it takes to accrue knowledge and drive powerful experiences, would one need to live forever per se?

Only if you assume that you can (re)learn things and remember those experiences during that whole span of time.


There are still jobs for COBOL devs.

Sounds like a Twilight Zone / Black Mirror writing prompt.

I want humanity to love forever simply because I don’t want anyone to have to experience their parents dying, and everyone older than them slowly fading and passing away in pain.

It’s a shame that so many people think about death in a personal way, forgetting that before you die, you will have to watch the last generation whom you know and love go to the grave.

I read an article a few weeks ago, a guy said that past 75 he wouldn't seek treatment for cancer. I thought that was a nice medium between getting enough time to see the grandkids and not letting it drag on in pain and suffering for everyone. So basically as many healthy years past 75 as you're lucky enough to get, and no more.

I think you shd differentiate on the cancer. I know somebody got a light skin cancer at ard 75, did minor surgery and lived until 96.

I expect in the guy's mind he was thinking more like "after 75 I won't do chemotherapy"

Yeah I think the point was not to do any of the drastic treatments that you might if you were younger. Some of them end up prolonging agony, and that's not worth it unless you are younger.

For representative democracy though I think we can experiment with assigning voting weights to age ranges, in a way that allows fresh ideas to exist from people that have a different level of collaborative society in their formative years

Several parliamentary democracies have weighted voting, but thats usually in favor of corporations ie. City of London and Hong Kong

> For representative democracy though I think we can experiment with assigning voting weights to age ranges, in a way that allows fresh ideas to exist

The problem here is that you would be brushing off the concerns of an older group by simply asserting that "they're old and holding us back" without considering that perhaps someone who had been around for 500 years might have far more insight and quite literally had already lived through whatever political experiment some twenty-somethings want to vote for. Not criticizing you specifically but I've seen this mentality before w.r.t. old people and voting.

Us older folks have also seen a lot of "new" ideas from the younger ones that have been repeatedly tried and failed. No need to try them again.

A healthy democracy needs the young for new ideas, and the old to warn them about the experience with those "new" ideas.

It's like software. The new guy just gets 'er done. The old guy says "your quadratic algorithm won't scale. did you encrypt the password database? did you make a backup? did you set aside money for the tax bill?"

They still get a vote and if there wind up being many more 500 year olds it'll still let them keep society comfortable and familiar for themselves

Bingo. Quantity is worthless without sufficient quality. I would rather be healthy and strong and die at 80 than sickly and bedridden for the remaining decades and die at 120.

Any improvement to lifespan will necessarily improve healthy lifespan.

(And for my part, I'll always take those extra 40 years, no matter the condition, because that's 40 more years for medical science to advance and solve more of those problems.)

In my experience this reflexive "more is better" attitude only leads to unhappiness. the more I've abandoned this kind of thinking, the better my quality of life has become.

> Any improvement to lifespan will necessarily improve healthy lifespan.

Will it? I don't see why it necessarily will do so.

And even if it does... if it gives you 10 more healthy years, and then 20 more bedridden years, for a net gain of 30 years, is that really a gain? Or do the 20 bedridden years make the 10 healthy years not worth it?

Many of the same things affecting lifespan are the same things that cause age-related degeneration. Any medical improvement to lifespan will almost certainly be an improvement to health. (There are non-medical things that could improve average lifespan without substantially improving average health, such as reducing causes of fatal accidents, but those wouldn't improve maximum lifespan, only average lifespan.)

And yes, of course it's a gain. You could always choose not to take those extra years, if you really don't want them. It's good to have that possibility available.

As a side thread, regarding Jeanne Calment, here's a more in depth article about whether she was actually the oldest person in the world: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/02/17/was-jeanne-cal...

I find it compelling, or at least plausible, that she wasn't actually the oldest person ever. Mainly just on the math of if, that if expected years remaining reduces exponentially as a function of current age, there would have to be many more people closer to the oldest age than there are.

It's an inserting article, but I come out of it on the other side of you. The descriptions from the people who lived with Jeanne and Yvonne for decades make it sound too impossible for someone to have made the switch described. Living this long could just be like winning the lottery. Sure it is incredibly unlikely that any one person would win, but when someone does win that doesn't mean it's fraud. After all in this case we all buy a ticket.

I do not believe her age is correct; the Bible states that man's maximum lifespan is now 120:

> Genesis 6:3

> And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.

I know you're getting down voted for not providing evidence / not being scientific, but I've always wondered how that number made its way into the Bible. Were people really living to 120 back when Genesis was written 3500 years ago?

There is the idea in the Bible that in the time before the flood people were somehow greater. They were bigger and lived longer. Here is a quote from Noah's genealogy for instance from the New Revised Standard Version, Genesis chapter 5.

"21 When Enoch had lived sixty-five years, he became the father of Methuselah. 22 Enoch walked with God after the birth of Methuselah three hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. 23 Thus all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty-five years. 24 Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him. 25 When Methuselah had lived one hundred eighty-seven years, he became the father of Lamech. 26 Methuselah lived after the birth of Lamech seven hundred eighty-two years, and had other sons and daughters. 27 Thus all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty-nine years; and he died."

After the flood things changed, and you don't have these incredibly long lived people anymore.

People seem to forget the story states it never rained before the flood and that a mist covered everything. Indeed, there wasn’t enough direct sunlight for a Rainbow until the flood.

Regardless of whether it’s true or not, the story is describing a different type of earth; one covered with dense clouds that all precipitated at once, flooding the world and, ever since, exposing everything to UV radiation which obviously would have an enormous deleterious impact on lifespans.

There's a bit of a rabbit hole to go down about the question of ages in Genesis, touching on some neat topics such as Base-60 counting systems used by ancient Sumerian civilizations. Here's a nice start : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoPbZnRN8xQ

It is really a Western culture thing to put great exactness on numbers. There is also the possibility that timekeeping was off compared to today, and so with those two factors in mind, it might not be unreasonable to assume that many people (at least knew someone who) lived to their 80's-90's, which in turn would make it 120 years with some great give-and-take. I think this is the argument of Dr John Oakes (disclaimer: doctor in chemistry, not theology).

A personal hypothesis is that according to the Bible, Moses lived to be 120 years, and as he was a salvific figure (not divinely) to the Jews him living to the maximum age is a pretty cool point.

Anyway, it kind of begs the question: how Jacob came to be 130 (Genesis 47:9), when max age was 120? Perhaps Genesis 6:3 was talking about something else, then? Theories include how much time was left in the life of Adam (the word used for man is in the singular number with the definite article, which could be translated as "the man Adam", instead of mankind). So it might be saying that Adam had 120 years left to live in. Another interpretation is that God gives mankind 120 years of repentance, and then the flood waters would come.

Either way, it's a good question. 120 seems to have some significance in the Bible. 2 Chronicles 5:12-13 mentions Solomon's temple, where there were 120 priests singing in unity. In Acts 1:15 there were 120 people that Peter talked to. The book of revelation mentions that 12 000 from each tribe will be saved, for a total of 144 000 people (12 x 12000).

Thanks for the prompt, even though I have no answer.

Disclaimer: I am a Christian and in pursuit of my BTh, so I am probably biased.

Well, no. People often lived much longer, 500 or even 800 years…

But seriously it’s quite interesting that Moses number is so close to the current limit!

At best that says they could count to the rough age of their own eldest. At worst, it’s just the Texas sharpshooter fallacy — you don’t get brownie points for that when the same book also gave a size for Noah’s Ark roughly on par with Berlin Zoo’s rhino exhibit.

I don’t understand. Genesis is talking about the maximum age someone can live. And it turns put to be very close to reality. It’s not measuring two different things. You confuse me.

The Bible a as a whole is making a lot of claims, not just that one. You claim one example of being (close to) right (given a chalcolithic lifestyle and medicine) is “interesting” in isolation — but that ignores that it’s surrounded by nonsense.

It isn’t interesting or surprising that a collection of nonsense might be occasionally (and even then vaguely) correct.

Lottery players are occasionally correct about the numbers, even if they chose them by superstition. But even they don’t get to claim the jackpot when they choose and the drawn numbers are merely “close”. Yet being close is the first step in how superstitions get generated.

Likewise, the Bible: no more or less interesting than any other collection of Just So stories, fitting a narrative to an existing observation.

It gets super weird, the word we use for "really old", Methuselah, comes from a person mentioned in the bible as living to 969.

Noah was said to have reached over 900 as did Adam, etc.

But it's not like years were unknown to people in antiquity either. But maybe it's just something that we don't have a good translation for and "year" is a close enough guess.

For instance, someone who has lived to 80 has lived about 960 months, which, if you notice, is really close to 969. And people living to their 70s and 80s seems reasonable. Considering that life expectancy in the past typically jumped up once you reached adulthood.

It had nothing to do with lifespans.

The pronouncement related to the Flood: it occurred 120 years after the pronouncement.

There’s some confusion in the chronology, due to Noah’s genealogy, age, and the births of his sons being kinda garbled up in the same chapter. (That is, some might say the flood happened 100 years after the pronouncement instead of 120.)

But no fair reading would assume it has to do with lifespans as even in the authors time (Moses, presumably) people were living longer than 120 years. For instance, Sara lived to 127, Abraham lived to 175, and Jacob made it to 140 or so.

Probably not, but they also weren't good at keeping time.


It says that The Bible contains at least one obvious thing that is true.

If one wrote down millennia again that men tend to die from decapitation, that would still hold to this day as well, much more than that as there are people that lived beyond the age of 120.

I get this feeling that we've already discovered the highs (or we're close) of the population average. Individuals may get older more than they used to, but as a group there's also a lot of people exposing themselves to risks that didn't exist in our hunter-gatherer past. Too much food and too little exercise kills a lot of people.

Of course not everyone will eat themselves to death, and there have been advances in both other areas of medicine as well as public information. But it seems like the top causes of death are basically linked to eating wrong and not using the body the way it was meant, both of which are not so simple to fix, even if you solve the difficult problem of the telomeres and all that.

I always think about The Forever War[0] whenever the topic of extending life spans comes up.

While we don't have the jumps due to time dilation, I contemplate how the human mind would adapt to the changes of society over an even longer period of time. The societal and technological advances of the 20th century were immense. I'm assuming even more changes for the 21st (if we don't blow ourselves up). How much longer can we go before our brains revert to the "mean" and stagnate somewhere in the middle?

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Forever_War

Talk about an article to spark your existential dread.

Imagine a dictator getting to power who was unlikely to die from natural causes for another 150-200 years.

Or even not a dictator, just any person of authority holding their post for centuries.

This was observed in scientific contexts by Max Planck:

> A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. . . . An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the youth.


This is generally paraphrased as "science advances one funeral at a time".

Long lifespans would probably correspond to society changing more slowly and making more conservative choices. On the plus side, maybe those in power would have more incentive to take the long view, and optimize for results that won't happen for a long time. Climate change might perhaps be taken more seriously if our elderly leaders had a plausible chance of living long enough to see coastal cities underwater.

Some good points, that have crossed my mind as well. I think I tend to a more pessimistic view of those who strive to become our leaders. Experience seems to show that a more likely outcome is for them to strive desperately to save themselves from the coming disaster at the expense of everyone else rather than looking for ways to avert the disaster. After all, building a floating palace sounds a lot easier than transforming society :-/

That's a plot point of the Expanse.

Right, while we are at it, let's also stop curing for diseases so that, well, dictators can die from them?

I'm on the side of the pessimists here. Medicine for elderly people increasingly seems to become plugging holes on a sinking ship. Sure as more and more people get old and medicine increases the current record might be broken by a year or two, I'm very skeptical people will ever routinely live older than 120, and the average person will probably not make it past 100.

I'm also very suspicious of people who advocate turning to wonder drugs or treatment to stop aging. For the most part these are just untested treatments that do not have any clear criteria for what they should be doing.

The treatments don't exist yet apart from a few stem cell treatments e.g. for Parkinson's disease.

But there are clear criteria: there are the seven categories of cell damage proposed by Aubrey de Grey over a decade ago:


If treatments are developed to tackle these types of damage then I suspect they will rapidly supersede conventional geriatric care in terms of cost and convenience, a significant side-effect being that the patient subsequently fails to die of natural causes.

I mean, sure if someone invents a wonder drug that will be different. But for now we have people advocating for taking off label medications like metformin to increase longevity despite no trials showing that.

They're doing that because diabetics on metformin have been living longer than non-diabetics. The TAME trial in progress now is trying it on healthy people; it's the first such trial because until now the FDA wouldn't approve trials for anti-aging treatments.

Medicine still has a long way to go. I wish there were way more studies exploring the fundamentals of aging processes vs unproven miracle drugs

Agreed, what you describe is the status quo, where we have small evolutions through diets and drugs.

But I'm not completely on the pessimistic side because there's one thing that could change everything: the moment someone discovers how to effectively revert human cell decay (which has already been done in lab rats btw), then reality changes completely and living to 200 and beyond is achievable.

It could very well be like turning lead into gold, an ideal so close but never achieved. But on aging, I think humans already know what needs to be done, so I wouldn't put all my bets against it.

Pedantic quibble, but by "never achieved" you probably mean "too inefficient to do in practice?" For lead to gold in particular, all you really need is a particle accelerator, a steady supply of energy, and a lot of patience.

Not until the human genome gets some redesign work. That's going to be a really long debug cycle. There's no fundamental reason that some of the timeout aspects of aging can't be eliminated from the genome. But that is for new babies, not a retrofit for existing humans.

The interesting thing about the timeout genes, is that they are there for a "reason". It's a species' built-in population control mechanism to ensure that resources are spared for the younger generations. Evolution has put these genes in almost every living thing, to ensure that they eventually die.

So there is a "meaning" to death, when understood from nature.

Can you be more specific? I've heard the argument, for example, that cell death is a defense against tumor growth, but we do not observe that across all living things - we have Peto's paradox where large animals have almost no incidence of cancer.

I'd be really hesitant to try to attribute any one specific reason as to why we age, or why that has benefited some life.

Yep, retrofitting can be hard. But if you figure it out for babies, Im not sure why you couldnt ultimately use the same ideas to also start changing genome of existing bodies. Obviously, there are more cells to change. But at least you dont have to wait as long to see the effect.

There’s also no fundamental reason that all this bioengineering will not result in a new ‘species’ with say an average IQ of 200 and a consciousness five times as large as humans’. How long would they want to live?

There isn’t much you can do after 90 I’m not sure what is the hype in living past it unless they also solve physical/mental issues. Who wants to live like a husk?

I've read stories of 90 year olds riding bikes and enjoying the small things in life. I'd certainly prefer that over being dead.

If I look how much time I spent in front of a PC or smartphone, I wouldn't worry about being 90 and having nothing to do.

Potentially, family dinners with grand kids can be lovely

Here's a question: If medical procedures were available to extend your life to 200+ years but to get the procedure you had to have never had children and would have to allow yourself to be permanently and irreversibly sterilised, would you take the option?

Would you trade the chance to pass on your genes for the chance to live personally for an extended period?

This is a thought provoking question, certainly, but it also makes the basic assumption that the person you're asking already plans to have kids (and is not already a parent)

I'm set on not having children for moral reasons, so your question becomes a no-brainer for me. On that note... I wonder what people who already have children would think of this "deal"? On the one hand, they've already made their babies, but... on the other hand, they may be disinclined to outlive their children.

Well obviously for those who don't want children the question is not difficult to answer. I'd like to hear from those who have children or who want children whether they think it's fair that you can only extend your life by a couple of hundred years at the expense of passing on your genes or being a parent. I guess adoption could still be an option.

I just think that if one wants to continue using the worlds resources for a very extended period of time then one should not be allowed to produce children. I think there are many good reasons for this. One example: many youngsters today are already struggling to afford anywhere to live with wealthier grandparents and parents owning more and more property. They are often stuck living with their parents well into their 30's or older. Imagine being stuck living with your parents for 200 years lol.

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