In recent weeks, a spate of new stories have appeared purportedly citing longevity scientists predicting that children being born right now might never die. Others have predicted that people who are now alive might very well live to 150.
I won't. I can't.
In 2008, Barabara Walters posted an article on the ABC website touting her upcoming ABC “Live to Be 100....Can You Do It?”
Well, actually, no, you can't, and telling people they can is the worst kind of intellectual arrogance.
Some people may very well live to be 150 or more, but they belong to a very different segment of the population from the rest of us.
They are the Super-Rich.
Today, in order to get first class medical care, you need to be under the care of a “concierge physician,” a very expensive medical specialist who promises to give you and your family his or her undivided attention ….for $150,000 a year.
Concierge physicians don't take Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance because, if you have Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance, you can't afford their services.
The average primary care physician follows anywhere from 200 to 500 patients per year. The average concierge physician sees 50 to 100.
That $150,000 a year doesn't cover medication, emergency medical care, acute treatment, surgical procedures, palliative care, hospitalization and everything else that patient needs to achieve and maintain good health.
Scientists are telling us that they soon will be able to “customize” children by enhancing their mental abilities, their physical attributes, and their longevity, through genetic manipulation. Other scientists have been reporting progress toward combating the diseases of old age, while others are announcing success at curing many of ancillary side-effects of old age.
These "customized" children will have pre-selected facial features, skin tones, hair and eye color, and even a specified height and weight range - but the cost of these services will probably be upwards of $250,000.
A simple artificial insemination costsup to $500 per attempt for intrauterine insemination and, with a 15% average success rate, up to seven attempts may be needed, at a cost of just $3,500....but the cost for in vitro insemination runs around $12,000 per cycle....and sometimes it takes ten or more attempts to create a viable embyrio, bringing the cost for the harvesting and implantation of the eggs up to $120,000 PER YEAR and that's before you integrate the cost of customizing the genetic characteristics of the embyrio, which can easily double the cost.
At $250,000 per pregnancy, the only people who will be able to obtain these super-smart, super-talented children will, of course, be the Super Rich because no insurance covers these procedures.
Taking this as merely one example of the discrepancy between the availability of a procedure and the accessibility of that procedure, we can extropolate that other life extension therapies will only be available to the Super Rich, to the point where they will not only live better but will also live longer than the rest of us.
So, while excited scientists proclaim this new era in human longevity, perplexed philosophers are wondering what will happen to a human race that diverges into two sub-races, a small patrician race of the super-engineered super rich who have been bred to their positions of wealth and power, and a huge plebian race of underlings and servants.
There are, in fact, corrective measures for almost all of the things that kill us....if only we could afford them.
The cost of a single bout of cancer treatment is now inching up over $500,00 per instance. In an era where cutbacks in Medicare and Medicaid appear inevitable, who is going to pick up those bills for the increasing number of retiring seniors who can no longer afford their health insurance costs? (I was treated for two different cancers in 2003. The total cost of the treatments were well over $500,000. My cost was $50.00. Fifty bucks. Today, with my present health plan, the same treatments would now cost almost $1 million, but I couldn't even afford the 25% co-pay.)
The bitter fact is that most people simply can't afford this kind of high quality medical care right now, and the ratio of those who can afford this high quality of care is decreasing precipitously.
Right now, there are people dying all over the world for the lack of clean water, basic sanitation, adequate nutrition, crop failures, natural disasters, and war. People in these situations will never have access to life extension treatments, nor will most of the rest of us because the cost of these procedures, while relatively modest compared to the cost of sending men into space, is simply prohibitive when extended across an entire society.
More importantly, most of the rest of us will never be able to afford this kind of care because the exponentially increasing cost of regular medical care will make it impossible for any government to distribute these kinds of life extension therapies for the most basic political consideration:
There are two people in adjacent hospital beds. In one bed, there's a 12 year old prodigy who urgently needs a kidney transplant. In the next bed, there's an 80 year-old Nobel laureate in exactly the same situation.
Who do you think should get the kidney, if there's only one available on the day both the young person's kidney and the old person's kidney collapse?
The answer is self-evident. The younger patient should get the kidney, and usually does, and, if he doesn't, he certainly should.
Now, put yourself into the picture. The Nobel laureate is your father. The 12 year old prodigy is your son. The doctors come to you with one kidney and ask you what they should do.
This is the position into which life extension experiments put every single one of us.
As a society, over the next few years, we are going to be forced to make numerous decisions like this one, and we're not going to like it.
Wouldn't you want to live to 150, 200 or longer, if you were assured that you would be able to maintain the same level of mental and physical health you enjoy right now.
Or would you?
As we continue to age, the accumulation of new experiences demands our attention in a very specific manner. In order to manage out lives, we have to our attention into the present moment, while remembering the things we need to remember from our recent past. As we accumulate more and more memories, the newer memories always force the older memories out of consciousness. But the fact of the matter is that we are nothing but our memories and without our memories we are nothing at all.
If you're comfortable with living in the constant present tense, you might embrace this additional span of life with open arms, but most people can't live in the present for more than a few seconds at a time. Instead, you will associate past events with current activities, and project future events on the basis the conditions of the present moment.
As we age, we forget the past because we have to in order to continue accumulating memories and, while it is possible, with varying degrees of effort, to remember every single past moment of our lives, the effort of doing so would drive us into a severely dissociated autistic state that can evolve into actual catatonia.
When we age out of our responsibilities for caring for parents and our children, we become increasingly self-centered and less engaged with other people because the people you grew up with are spread all over the world, and the ones who remain close are as old and as self-centered as you are.
For every Gandhi or Dali Llama, there are millions of elderly people who contribute nothing of significance to the world, which steals from them their desire to live.
Right now, in America, we are seeing the effects of over-population. Whenever you see high levels of unemployment for significant periods of time, what you are seeing is nothing less than an accurate articulation of our population dilemma.
We have millions of Americans of working age for whom we have no jobs....and never will again...while we import workers from other countries to do jobs that Americans can't or won't do, and allow millions more to enter the country illegally, precisely to drive down the cost of cheap labor even further.
Given the high rates of unemployment, increasing medical costs, and decreased underwriting of medical care through the almost inevitable reductions in Medicare and Medicaid, and you have a situation in which all the high end research into life extension will be at the cost of regular medical care for the working classes.
And this is the rub that the budget cutters simply can't seem to understand:
Without Medicare and Medicaid underwriting the wherewithall to meet the cost of maintaining our vast medical establishment, the hospitals, clinics and laboratories these longevity researchers need simply will not exist.
Far from being a drain on the economy, Medicare and Medicaid, along with Social Security and, alas, military spending, are all that is propping up this economy and preventing an even Greater Depression.
There's a special relationship between Medicare, in particular, and private insurance companies that no one ever talks about. Medicare off-loads patients from the private insurers to a government-sponsored insurance system at precisely the age – 65 – that medical problems begin to accumulate for most patients. Without an effective public insurance program, private insurers would find themselves carrying those patients well past that age, bankrupting them.
Without these contributions to our economy, our medical economy will collapse. Hospitals will close, bankrupted. Clinics will collapse from the overload. Doctors will flee their practices because, without Medicare and Medicaid, perhaps half of the practices in the United States would be underwater in a matter of months, putting ever increasing pressure on the remaining physicians who have not given up their practice.
Now, overload this fragile system with the intense care required to keep people healthy in their later years...and you see the depths of the conundrum. Systemic breakdown.
The people who promote this silliness do so to get publicity for themselves, which they then turn into contributions to support their work in the arena of life extension....but the only lives they are extending are their own.
There will always be some people who beat the reaper and live far longer than the curve suggests they should. Some are rich. Others, frankly, are experimental subjects. A very few are very, very lucky, if you think living to a decrepit old age is happiness.
The rest of us obviously aren't. We are shit out of luck when it comes to living forever because we can't afford to live right now, let alone forever.