Many branches of science that involve research seem to grow exponentially. And genetics is no exception. The cover of the May edition of National Geographic features the face of a baby (actually, one of four ethnically diverse babes, randomly distributed among its covers) with a graphic that shouts, “This baby will live to be 120.”
While the claim may or may not be so much hype, the related story presents anecdotal profiles of folks in their eighties, nineties and 100s, living in such diverse places as Ecuador, Italy, and the Bronx.
The report, “New Clues to a Long Life,” by Stephen S. Hall, describes the progress genetic researchers are making in identifying the elements that lead to extended human longevity. While the report focuses most intently on the hereditary factors of respective ethnic groups, it concludes by quoting the words of Giuseppe Passarino, a geneticist at Italy’s University of Calabria, that, “in the end, genes probably account for only 25 percent of longevity. It’s the environment too, but that doesn’t explain all of it either. And don’t forget chance.”
But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that scientists figure out just the right combination of prenatal treatment, diet, exercise, medication, and genetic engineering to get the latest crop of newborns to survive 12 decades. What then?
They’ll be living in a world occupied by 10 billion-plus humans. Will these dodecagenarians be living well? To what extent will they depend on society for their support and care?
There may be no greater issue making congressional fiscal conservatives nervous than the national debt we leave to future generations. At the same time, there may be no greater threat to human sustainability and environmental health than overpopulation.
The conundrum is that while science may be able to extend lifespans, thereby expanding our population, society may not prepare far enough in advance for unexpected future needs. Will great-great-great-great-grandpa be depending on, let’s say, his great-grandchild for financial and other support?
The Social Security Administration is coping with “financial challenges in the near future,” as life expectancies increase. But is it considering the possibility that the span of a human life will grow from the present 79 to 120? That’s an increase of more than 50 percent. And, unless individuals’ work years expand dramatically, all of that forty-year increase will be during a person’s retirement.
Scientists search in a variety of places to find the keys to longevity. Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx “now suspect that our pattern of aging may be set very early, perhaps before we’re born,” by conditions in the womb. Their research may inadvertently be setting the table for a necessity to regenerate the Ponzi scheme of increasing the size of future generations to provide for the care of those who came before them. The eldest generation may need help, and a lot of it. Which takes us back to the issues of sustainability and environmental degradation. How can we, and the planet, handle so many of each other?
This much is certain: There are Enough of Us. And before we plow ahead with blind efforts to increase our years on earth, shouldn’t we consider where all this is leading us?
We certainly have no easy answers. But we do have one very important question: Isn’t now the time to start cutting back on the number of future 120-year-olds we may be producing?
What’s your opinion?