Friday, January 13, 2012

On Aging

If you had to decide right now how many years you'd be alive, what number would you choose?

This is the question that came up in conversation with a friend of mine while he was visiting from California last month. We'd been talking about an article he'd read about slowing the aging process, and the discussion naturally turned to what we would do if we could choose how long to be alive.

To me this question would be very interesting to explore in a book. Various interpretations of it have been addressed in some of the novels I've read, but the particular situation I'd enjoy writing about would be this:

Imagine that humanity has developed a one-time treatment to slow aging, the effectiveness of which depends on the age of the patient at the moment the treatment is administered. If performed on a newborn, the treatment causes the patient to age so slowly that a normal lifespan lasts for centuries, with the length of each stage of life proportional to the current standard. If performed on someone over the age of 80 it has little effect. The efficacy of the treatment decreases rapidly, so around the age of 18 the treatment would increase life expectancy by only double.

A lot of legal and ethical questions come out of this kind of situation. For example, given these conditions, who gets to decide if and when a child receives the treatment?

On the one hand, I don't believe anyone has the right to make that choice for someone else. Some people would not want to change the natural order of their lives. And just consider this: the longer a person lives, the higher the odds that their life is cut short by a tragic accident instead of natural causes. I would personally much prefer to be an 80-year-old woman dying of cancer after a full life than an 80-year-old toddler dying before I've learned to talk.

On the other hand, would an 18-year-old have good reason to sue her parents because they didn't give her the treatment as a child and thus severely limited her potential life span?

And when would a child be old enough to make that decision for herself?

All of these questions intrigue me, and I think they would be fun to think about further in working on a book, though I don't really have a plot that fits with this setting.

What are your thoughts? What part of this hypothetical situation intrigues you most?


  1. Off the top of my head, I'd say there's no reason to prolong adolescence. Puberty is ROUGH, so why do something that would make it take even longer? So I would think it would make the most sense for the process to not be performed until the subject is physically mature- somewhere in the 16-18 range.

    1. I would tend to agree--that age would be most likely for the treatment. But then, I imagine some people might illegally get it for their children much earlier, which would add another dynamic.

  2. This has to be one of your most interesting posts. Usually this sort of story goes into some campaign for the right to die. I hope you do something different.

    One of the biggest dangers for something like this is a nigh immortal dictator. Even a good one would likely go bad, given enough time. And what would said dictator do if he/she discovered there was an antidote for the treatment, and he/she had been receiving it in small doses for some time--and the traitor was unknown?

    Supposedly when Herod was dying, he knew that no one would mourn. So he gave orders for large numbers of Jewish priests to be killed at the moment of his death so that people would be sad at his passing. A nigh immortal might be very angry indeed at the loss of a century or two.

    1. I like that angle! In a certain kind of society, the treatment might be a benefit for only the highest classes. Or maybe it has to be earned, or maybe it's expensive enough that a family saves and saves in order to give it to their child when they come of age. So many different directions this could go.

  3. This is a first world problem...since the vast majority of the people of the world have short, painful lives. If we have more people being born in a world that can barely support the people that are already on it, and they aren't dying fast enough...then what? I forsee Soylant Green in the future...