Thanks to our growing understanding of the natural laws of health and advanced research into high-tech biochemistry, what was once little more than a pipe dream - the notion that the length of human life can be extended - is becoming a reality.
Gerontologists have now challenged the maximum lifespans of many species of animals. Man is next. Already physicians are using antioxidant nutrients, electromagnetic techniques and other anti-aging tools to prevent physical degeneration and to restore health and balance to ailing bodies. Meanwhile psychiatrists and psychologists trained in biochemistry and in the orthomolecular treatment of the brain are not only beginning to cure mental and emotional problems associated with age, they are even using the tools of their trade to expand consciousness. It becomes important to ask the question, `With what consequences?'
The first worry about life extension for most people is usually, `What will we do with these old people we are creating?' `Won't they be yet a further burden to society?' Naturally they want to know about the effect that longevity will have on housing, medical costs and the rest. Such questions are valid. But it is also important to penetrate the point of view from which they come - the assumptions and paradigms which underlie them.
Our society has imprinted its members with negative concepts about being old. In the book for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, Why Survive? Being Old in America, Dr Robert Buffer outlined the enormous practical problems of dealing with the aged: housing, pensions, personal security, need for meaningful occupations and the rest, and the horrific conditions in which many old people in modern Western society live. He also pointed out that we hold many unconscious assumptions about the aged which continue to create these conditions. They are always with us and they greatly distort our view of aging, old people and their place in society. These assumptions include a belief that the aged are inflexible, senile, unproductive people waiting for the inevitable arrival of the grim reaper. Basically not interesting, of little value, they are people worthy of being assigned to a foreclosed existence. Alex Comfort refers to these common views of age and the elderly as `ageism' which he defines as `the notion that people cease to be people, to be the same people or become people of a distinct and inferior kind, by virtue of having lived a specified number of years'. The assumptions of `ageism' lie behind many of the most often asked questions about the social and political consequences of ageless aging. They make such questions impossible to answer adequately from our current perspective and with our current views of reality. They also force us to ignore a number of important realities.
We forget for instance that chronological age at its very best is only a limited indication of biological and functional age. Even our present old people are capable of far more than society allows them to express or contribute - indeed more than they themselves allow. We also forget that every major disease is age-dependent and all of the major causes of death and disability are secondary to the progressive degeneration of aging. Little wonder, for until now, after the age of 30 we have been witnessing a steady and inexorable increase in the probability of morbidity and mortality from one disease or another. But people living by the principles of ageless aging will be different. Highly resistant to the ravages of degeneration which manifest themselves in our major destructive chronic diseases such as cancer, coronary heart disease, arthritis and the rest, they will be less rather than more of a burden to the state in terms of medical, social and psychiatric care. Application of these life-lengthening and life-enhancing principles to health on a wide scale should lead to an increase in the ratio of productive to nonproductive men and women with prolonged life spans. This has been the conclusion of Yale's Professor Larry Kotlikoff, one of the few academics to look seriously at the issue. Kotlikoff initiated an inquiry into the economic effects of increased lifespan. He also concluded that this increase in the ratio of productive to nonproductive people would result in an increased per capita output whether or not the working period increased year for year with life expectancy.
With the increased longevity and the improved resistance to degeneration which are the natural outcome of applying the findings of age-researchers to our everyday lives, the population of our old people will also change. So will our attitudes to them. No longer a burden, like the Vilcabamba Indians or the Abkhazians of the Soviet Caucasus they will become not `old people' but `long lived people'. Such a simple shift in attitude could revolutionize us as human beings not only in terms of politics and economics but by shifting us towards a more value orientated society. At that point the question of `What will we do with all these old people?' begins to take on quite a different meaning. For the challenge now becomes not how we house, feed, and care for a growing sector of the nonproductive population but rather how we can best use the energy and wisdom of the older members of our society.