There have been many who ponder the secrets to a long life. Having just witnessed the 70th wedding anniversary of my parents-in-law and taken part in a facilitated session on taboos around death and dying, this topic has particular resonance for me at the moment.

There is an obsession with living longer that some have placed at the door of the baby boomer generation. A google search using the term “how to live longer” surfaced 287,000,000 hits. There are a number of projects that seek to capture the wisdom and insights of centenarians as they are a rare enough breed that people want to know how to be one too.

The number of people aged over 100 is growing in many countries, Australia has had a 185% increase in the past 20 years. In 2010 there were 3,700 people aged 100 years or more. In 2008, Japan had over 36,000 people aged 100 years or over, however in 2010 the Government undertook an audit which found 230,000 older people were ‘missing’ which suggests that some passed away without a record occurring allowing for pensions to be collected. However, the UN projects by 2050 there are expected to be 3.2 million centenarians world-wide, an 18-fold increase from the turn of the century. Research that looked at the reasons why some people live long lives found they “were more likely to live independently and had fewer diseases, better mental health, and better physical and cognitive function than those who did not survive to age 97”. They also observed that “men were healthier than women, and whites were generally healthier than nonwhites. Highly educated exceptional survivors had better cognitive function than their less-educated counterparts”.

In the converse trend, the life expectancy of many young people is dropping in the US, prompting researchers to try to determine the cause. One suggestion is that the level of obesity and diabetes in young people might well make life expectancy decline for the generation following us, interestingly this would be in contrast to a 1000 year trend of increasing expectancy. So if the key is to be healthy and happy for as long as possible, who can help us with that?

Aubrey de Grey  has predicted that the first person to see their 150th birthday has already been born, and the person who will live to 1000 may not be far behind them. This is not longevity at any cost, as he states:

“This is absolutely not a matter of keeping people alive in a bad state of health,” he told Reuters. “This is about preventing people from getting sick as a result of old age. The particular therapies that we are working on will only deliver long life as a side effect of delivering better health.”

The SENS Foundation aims to assist people to achieve these long lived years through the use of biotech and rejuvenation.

Rejuvenation biotechnology is a new platform of biomedicines, based on the application of the principles of regenerative medicine to the structure of the body at all levels: from organs and tissues, to cells, and down to the molecular structures within and surrounding them.

Rejuvenation biotechnologies are therapies that directly remove, repair, replace, or render harmless the cellular and molecular damage caused by the biological aging process. It is the accumulation of this damage which results in the progressive rise in frailty, disease, and disability that people now suffer with age.

Another option is caloric restriction which uses experiments on mice to determine that “you would need to keep your calorie intake to three-quarters of the amount recommended by dietitians. That means about 1,800 for sedentary men and 1,500 for sedentary women”. This is done through a variety of means listed on the website of the CR Society, such as “replacing calorie-dense foods with calorie-sparse, nutrient-dense foods”. Being happy also helps as Diener and Chan found in 2010. “Seven types of evidence are reviewed that indicate that high subjective well-being (such as life satisfaction, absence of negative emotions, optimism, and positive emotions) causes better health and longevity”.

If all else fails, we may be able to upload our consciousness.

At the recent Global Future 2045 International Congress held in Moscow, 31-year-old media mogul Dmitry Itskov told attendees how he plans to create exactly that kind of immortality, first by creating a robot controlled by the human brain, then by actually transplanting a human brain into a humanoid robot, and then by replacing the surgical transplant with a method for simply uploading a person’s consciousness into a surrogate ‘bot. He thinks he can get beyond the first phase – to transplanting a working brain into a robot – in just ten years, putting him on course to achieve his ultimate goal – human consciousness completely disembodied and placed within a holographic host – within 30 years time.

So why are we so focussed on living long lives, apart from the wish to be on the planet for as long as possible, could our taboos about death have something to do with it? Death is not something we like to talk about. There is an Australian Museum site called ‘Death – the last Taboo’ which holds information how about what happens when we die and the different ways we deal with death.

In Australia today, many people find being in the presence of death frightening and unwelcome. Death is often hidden, sanitised and orderly. The Australian Museum has developed this website to accompany an exhibition designed to help explore some of the taboos surrounding death and explain what happens to our bodies when we die.

Death is often seen as something out of the ordinary, it often happens away from the home of the person who is dying. Terrible stories abound of people in advanced age who end up in intensive care with tubes and wires attached to them and life extended interventions undertaken.

By promoting longevity and technologically inhibiting death, we have created a new biological status held by an ever-growing part of the nation, a no-exit state that persists longer and longer, one that is nearly as remote from life as death, but which, unlike death, requires vast service, indentured servitude really, and resources. http://nymag.com/news/features/parent-health-care-2012-5/

The taboos around death mean that issues such as euthanasia, palliative care and advanced care planning are often ignored to the detriment of all of us, who will at some stage face our own death.

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