We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Contemplating the End of Aging as We Know It

"Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." - Ben Franklin

What we have long considered to be a natural part of life, aging, now turns out to be a degenerative disease that can be cured.  That is the direction medical research and science is headed.  Undoubtedly, I've stated the matter too simplistically, but however we slice it aging does seem increasingly to be something that is not inevitable.  It apparently can be cured and the basket of medical procedures and treatments that will lead to its cure are now being assembled piece by piece.  The latest bit of information along these lines is research on aging in mice reported in a new posting entitled, "A New—and Reversible—Cause of Aging: A naturally produced compound rewinds aspects of age-related demise in mice."  The posting begins by stating that,
Researchers have discovered a cause of aging in mammals that may be reversible. The essence of this finding is a series of molecular events that enable communication inside cells between the nucleus and mitochondria. As communication breaks down, aging accelerates. By administering a molecule naturally produced by the human body, scientists restored the communication network in older mice. Subsequent tissue samples showed key biological hallmarks that were comparable to those of much younger animals.
It concludes with a statement by the lead researcher of the team that has been studying aging in mice that, "There’s clearly much more work to be done here, but if these results stand, then certain aspects of aging may be reversible if caught early."

Contemplate for a moment a time when the various aspects of aging can be caught early enough and reversed, a society that is where death by old age is not inevitable.  The questions such a prospect generates are profound.  How then does a person's life come to an end?  Do we wait for the inevitable accident or natural catastrophe?  How do we learn to reverse population growth?  What strains does a non-aging population put on our already almost catastrophically abused natural environment?  Assume, furthermore, that the treatments involved in reversing aging are costly and likely not available to everyone.  In this future we are imagining, all Swedes can get the treatments because their government covers them.  Some (many?) Americans can't because we still haven't figured out how to deliver quality health care to all of our citizens.  How will that work?  Does the withholding of again treatments under any circumstances amount to murder?  What strains will it put on a society where some people age and some don't?  The reversal of aging, according to this scenario, will be as much of an ethical and spiritual challenge as it is a medical, social, and environmental one.

It would be nice to think that we will work out answers to these and many other questions before we put the technologies and treatments for aging, but that isn't likely to be what happens.