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Topic Guide: Ageing

"Attempts to extend radically the human lifespan should be welcomed not feared"

PUBLISHED: 18 Mar 2010

AUTHOR: David Bowden & James Gledhill

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Ageing affects us all, and not just in the sense that we all grow old. As a society we have an ageing population, in which the proportion of people over the traditional retirement age is increasing [Ref: The Wellcome Trust]. Adapting to this will require significant changes. Britain’s ageing population results partly from the fact that the bulge on the population graph produced by the post-war baby boom is beginning to pass the threshold of retirement age [Ref: Wikipedia]. Fears have been raised that the ‘demographic time-bomb’ is about to explode, with significant implications for pensions and healthcare {Ref:]. The principal cause, however, is a general increase in life expectancy. Over the last 150 years, life expectancy in the UK has nearly doubled from 40 to 80 years and research indicates half of babies born today are expected to live to 100 [Ref: BBC News]. Today, however, a few scientists see medical breakthroughs on the horizon that will radically extend our lifespan, perhaps even allowing us to live to 1,000 [Ref: The Times]! The attitude we adopt as individuals and as a society affects how we see the phenomenon of ageing. Some are happy to grow old gracefully, others go to great lengths in pursuit of the secret of eternal youth [Ref: The Times]. On one side of the debate are those who see increasing the human lifespan as a straightforward moral imperative. On the other side are those who think the desire to live forever is a selfish attitude that neglects our responsibilities to those who will follow us and ignores the way in which the inevitability of death gives meaning to life. The debate therefore throws up two issues. First, there’s the practical question: can we cope with the challenge of an ageing population, now and in the future? Second, there’s the underlying moral question: should scientists focus on increasing human lifespan?

For further reading use the menu bar on the right hand side.

Debate in context

This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What are the different scientific approaches towards ageing?
We age because our bodies have a limited capacity to renew and repair themselves. But while scientists are broadly agreed on why and how we age [Ref:], scientific research into ageing takes three different forms [Ref: PubMedCentral]. The conventional ‘compressed morbidity’ approach seeks increases in average human life expectancy, but not in maximum human lifespan. The aim is that all the bad aspects of ageing associated with declining functioning are compressed into a final period of decline at the end of a person’s life. There is evidence of public support for pursuing research into prevention rather than cures and for putting quality of life before simply longevity [Ref: ipsos-mori]. However, this is increasingly challenged by two other approaches. The ‘decelerated ageing’ approach seeks to slow down ageing processes so that both average life expectancy and maximum lifespan are increased. Finally, the most radical ‘arrested ageing’ approach seeks to ‘cure ageing’ and aims for radical life extension [Ref: Wikipedia].

Hope I die before I get old?

Should we be anxious about our capacity to adapt to the demands of an ageing population, something which is not just a European problem [Ref: BBC News] but affects Asia as well [Ref: BBC News]? Is an ageing population an opportunity [Ref: spiked] or a burden [Ref: Daily Telegraph]? First, there are social policy issues to do with the cost of pensions and healthcare. When we factor in the possibility of radical life extension, overpopulation and scarcity of resources is a frequent concern [Ref: Daily Telegraph]. Second, there are social attitudes towards ageing. Are we able to offer a positive vision of what it means to be old in a society where people appear increasingly keen to hold on to their youth [Ref: spiked]? Third, what sort of quality of life can we expect in old age? Are we destined for a frail old age or longer, healthier lives? Would life extension risk stringing out lives that are ‘painful and meaningless’ [Ref: Daily Mail], or is it about making us not ‘older longer’ but ‘younger longer’ [Ref: Reason]? It’s a question of whether science will allow quantity and quality of life to increase together or whether it’s more likely we will have longer lives but lack the quality of life to enjoy it. Finally, would increased longevity affect our attitude to life? Would we become so focused on living longer that we forget to live?

Who wants to live forever?

Cambridge University biogerontologist [Ref: Wikipedia] Aubrey de Grey, a supporter of the ‘arrested ageing’ approach, has argued that ‘the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already’ [Ref: BBC News]. His recommendations for defeating ageing, known as Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), are controversial [Ref: SENS]. The majority of the scientific community dismiss such views [Ref: BBC News], although campaigners think that the number of ‘supercentarians’ will increase dramatically [Ref: Daily Telegraph]. Separating scientific hope from hype is an important aspect of the debate; but even if de Grey’s predictions are not realistic, they still offer a challenge to our acceptance of ageing. Should we fight a war against death and see ageing as something that can be overcome? Is it just as important to extend people’s lives as it is to cure disease? As Leon Kass, a notable opponent of radical life extension, puts it ‘the challenges of an aging society are finally not economic and institutional but ethical and existential’ [Ref: Washington Post]. Those who follow Kass argue there is a natural cycle of life and death that we should not interfere with. Death is a reality to be faced, not a problem to be solved [Ref: Guardian]. Advocates of life extension argue that, on the contrary, death should not simply be accepted as a ‘fact of life’ but seen as an urgent problem to be overcome by adopting an engineering approach [Ref: SENS].

Essential reading

It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

When I’m 164: The Societal Implications of Radically Prolonged Lives

David Ewing Duncan Atlantic 4 September 2012

Popular arguments for and against longevity

George Dvorsky Accelerating Future March 2008


Why We Should Look Forward to Living to 120 and Beyond

Alex Zhavoronkov nextavenue 3 October 2013

Google’s Calico: the War on Aging Has Truly Begun

Aubrey de Grey TIME 18 September 2013

Living to 100 and Beyond

Sonia Arrison Wall Street Journal 27 August 2011


On Dying After Your Time

Daniel Callahan New York Times 30 November 2013

Do You Want to Be Immortal? Really?

George M. Young Huffington Post 1 August 2012

Immortality may beckon, but who wants to live forever?

Bryony Gordon Telegraph 23 September 2009

Three Arguments Against Extending the Human lifespan

Journal of Medical Ethics October 2007


Would doubling the human lifespan be a net positive or negative for us?

Gregory B Stock vs Daniel Callahan Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences January 2005

Key Terms

Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

How Japan stood up to old age

David Pilling FT Magazine 17 January 2014

Undoing aging: Aubrey de Grey

TEDxTalks December 2013

Prof Tom Kirkwood on Ageing

The Astellas Innovation Debate 6 November 2013

Why are there so few people over 115 years of age? (One)

Matt Ridley The Rational Optimist Blog 22 September 2013

Fear of Immortality

Will Saletan Slate 6 August 2013

Where are the missing 90-year-olds?

Ruth Alexander BBC 2 July 2013

Life expectancy is increasing, but so are social divides

Christine Broughan Guardian 9 July 2012

Cost of care and geriatric medicine

British Geriatrics Society 24 October 2010

Older people are more than ‘food for worms’

Brendan O’Neill spiked 23 July 2009

The ethics of life-extension

Edmonton Aging Symposium March 2007

Lingering Longer: Who Will Care?

Leon R. Kass Washington Post 29 September 2005

The science of ageing and anti-ageing

Halldór Stefánsson EMBO Reports July 2005

Who wants to live forever?

Jayne C Lucke and Wayne Hall EMBO Reports February 2005

‘We will be able to live to 1,000’

Aubrey de Grey BBC News December 2004

‘Don’t fall for the cult of immortality’

S Jay Olshansky BBC News December 2004

The Lifetime Distribution of Health Care Costs

Berhanu Alemayehu and Kenneth E Warner Health Services Research June 2004

The end of age

Reith Lectures BBC Radio 4 2001

In the news

Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Turning back time: ageing reversed in mice

New Scientist 19 December 2013

Could humans live to 500 years old?

Daily Mail 13 December 2013

Brussels warns on long-term costs of ageing

Financial Times 15 October 2009

Half of babies ‘will live to 100’

BBC News 2 October 2009

Map charts UK’s ageing population

BBC News 1 October 2009

UK retirement age could rise to 70

The Times 8 August 2009


Undoing aging: Aubrey de Grey

TEDxTalks December 2013

Prof Tom Kirkwood on Ageing

The Astellas Innovation Debate 6 November 2013

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