From the many desires that we, the humans, possess, or are possessed by, the desire to live longer is the most paradoxical to me. I am not able to understand as to why humans desire to live longer. Medically, morally, spiritually, philosophically, demographically, economically, socially and intellectually, this desire has no pillars to stand upon. Yet, even without any support, this desire stands tallest amongst all. The idea of immortality has always fascinated us. Not a single culture exists that has not explored it in its own manner. The Greeks, the Indians, the Christians, the Mayans, the Chinese and many more have expressed this desire through mix of fables, mythology and tales. When humans realised that immortality is a figment of human’s imagination, they evolved this desire into much more plausible and possible looking desire of increasing age or life span of humans as much as it can be. To live across two centuries and experience Napoleonic Wars, and then experience rise of British Empire along with the two world wars followed by human’s conquest of moon, is indeed a fascinating idea. But seldom have we thought, is it worthy enough?
In modern world, this desire has been intricately woven into research and development policy of almost all the nations. The research for anti-ageing, for increasing life expectancy and life span of populations, for curing some rare diseases [even if it involves something as brutal as ‘Halstedian’ methods of radical surgery to “treat” cancer], etc. finds significant budget, support, resources and public acceptance. So much support and acceptance that the morality of the research goes unchallenged. After all, it is all about ‘improving’ quality of human life and elongating it till the cells or the latest medication permits. Prima facie, the research is moral and has therefore ample public support unlike fields such as space research or research related to Higgs-boson.
While the nations spend their money and resources in this sort of research to fulfill the long-standing desire, they also put money and resources in organising conferences where they “discuss” perils of increasing population, raise alarm, and speak on how it needs to be “controlled”. This nonsense, of the two contrary ideas of increasing life span and controlling population at same time, to quote the famous jurist and legal philosopher-Jeremy Bentham, appears to be upon stilts. What puts this nonsense upon stilts further upon the pole star [so that it is for all to see] is the fact that instead of letting older people die naturally of diseases, ageing, trauma etc, and stopping research in these areas, the nations doubly invest in advertising blitzkrieg, public propaganda, and public “education” campaigns on birth control. The trouble is that humans want to control everything – birth as well as death. This makes no sense-neither socially, demographically, or economically. Intellectual bankruptcy is not hidden either. I would rather prefer a society that has numbers more tilted towards younger people than older people. And this is actually desired everywhere, for example, Europe at large, Japan, China are all struggling with their older population, they call it “burden” on the exchequer, and what not, whereas India, which has 70% people under 40, is hailed for its impending “demographic dividend”.
Scientifically, biological systems are not meant to live longer. They will dissipate energy, they will tend to reach an equilibrium with surroundings, for that they probably sometimes need a pathogen entering their blood stream through a hole punctured or already existing in skin, or a heart let loose or may be even cells and tissues at times. The causes may be many. We may choose to push this stage further. But how justified is it to undergo amputation of organs and limbs, or to have drugs with multiple side-effects [ironically, life threatening] to push this stage further? Recently Angelina Jolie made news with her double mastectomy. She was cheered, she was lauded and she was called as an “ideal” for women [men too], who came forth and underwent the surgery just after knowing that she has high risk of getting a breast cancer [after diagnosis with infamous BRCA1 and BRCA2 tests]. It was a preventive surgery, when nothing had happened to body at all and was free of the disease. This scare of short life and longing for long life, that has been created over a millennia, can push humans to such extremes. But the fact, the scientific fact, that remains is that she has to die. All of us have to die.
In saying above, I do not propose that medical research be stopped. Of course, we do not want our populations to die younger. Therefore, medical research be directed towards improving “quality” of life, instead of increasing its quantity. In a famous Bollywood film, Anand [released 1971], the lead character, who is shown to be suffering from lymphosarcoma of the intestine and is about to die in six months or so, tells a profound philosophy, packed in one line, to his doctor friend,”Life should be larger, not longer”. Needless to say the character dies and dies young, but not on false hopes of being saved or scared of not being saved. Of course, we do not desire diseases in our society, from common cold to devastating cancers, therefore humans seek treatment for all the diseases which are currently under the sun, or which will come under the sun as we move ahead in the evolution. But I think humans have gathered enough Big Data to compute that this [treatment for all diseases] is humanely impossible feat to achieve. Despite increase in treatments, what we actually see is the number of incidences of diabetes, cancer, heart disorders, etc. increasing every year. Not once have these incidences shown a southward trend. WHO projects that growth in cancer incidences, heart attacks, diabetes and all the diseases this world is made up of as economists project growth in GDP of an economy.
Why not turn this scare for death into love for quality life? One of the most needed and desired medical advances that I consider are not monoclonal antibodies treating cancer, while stripping humans of their immunity or even a pegfilgrastim that again repletes body with immunity after exposure to cancer treatment, but that of Polio vaccine. It improved the quality of life. Its impact has been profound. It has ‘prevented’ the disease and therefore there’s no need for the treatment at all. What if a preventive medication for cancer been made available to Angelina Jolie? Another area of research should be palliative care. Medical research is needed, but in preventive and palliative healthcare. And these researches are not just limited to medical field of art only, these researches transgress typical medical research themes and goes into realms such as sanitation, cleanliness, diet etc, and thereby adding to quality and grandeur of life.
The ultimate human desire is the reduction of sufferings while one goes through Shakespearean stages of life. A heavily tilted balance towards the unfounded and misplaced desire of long life or anti-ageing is stripping us of fulfilling a much more substantial desire of lowering the sufferings. Instead of mindlessly researching on increasing life expectancy and life span, I would suggest a more radical idea i.e. the discussions must be on the ideal age of death. In warm world of human relations, there is no ideal age. We want our near and dear ones to live forever. But in cold detached world of reality, policy making, and public good, this point must be explored. And of course it may vary from person to person. But such an assortment of data might prepare the future human race, or to put it eloquently, our posterity, to expect low in terms of longevity of life, and feed them in their system that it is all right to die younger and no alarm should be raised in low life expectancy or life span of its nationals, as long as, the nationals live a quality life within their shorter life span.