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THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME

becoming
methuselah Every year, we push death back
a little bit farther. B Y C H I P W A L T E R

T
he long habit of living,” British
thinker Thomas Browne once
wrote, “indisposeth us to dying.”
How true. But indisposed or not, we are all
genetically programmed to break this
particular habit—destined from the day
we are born to find our own, inevitable
end. No pills or procedures conjured so
far have contrived a way to deal death itself
a deathblow.
As a species, we have made some
progress at outfoxing what nature throws
at us. We fight the elements with clothing
and shelter; we’ve invented agriculture and
domesticated animals to better handle
hunger; and we’ve devised parties, singles
bars and Match.com to aid with the prob-
lem of mating. All, in their way, have loos-
ened death’s grip. Sanitation and antibi-
otics have done wonders to elongate life,
too. But still, the end refuses to be, once
and for all, ended.
For as long as we’ve been aware that
death is inescapable, we’ve also devised
philosophical and spiritual ways to
address the issue. There’s heaven, which
makes death easier to swallow by turning
it into a short transit ride we can take to a
new and improved version of the life we
were experiencing before we died in the
first place. Despite the many advantages
heaven offers, it hasn’t seemed to signifi-
illustration by Tim Lee
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P
cantly diminish our collective dread of ittsburgh, because it has one of the
death—a fact that renders suspect the faith nation’s oldest populations, has
some profess. become a kind of beta test for deal-
There’s also reincarnation, though per- ing with old age and death. Demographers
sonally I never saw the advantage of com- usually see this as a bad thing, but with so
ing back for another round of life if it much of the world growing collectively
meant remaining clueless about the first older—Europe and Asia as well as North
go-around. Where’s the second chance in America—and with more than 70 million
that? Hindus and Buddhists imagine nir- baby boomers headed in lock-step for that
vana, a state of complete bliss and enlight- great Rolling Stones concert in the sky, get-
enment reached after suffering through ting an early handle on the death problem
enough reincarnations that you literally see could be a growth business.
the light. Nirvana doesn’t so much require Maybe this is why so much work seems
a new life as a new you. There may be to be getting done in the region that focus-
something in that. es on keeping the Grim Reaper at arm’s
Even atheists and agnostics, who believe length. Since death is, collectively, a little
the end really is, or could be, the end, can closer in these parts, we pay closer atten-
gather up a few morsels of immortality by tion to it than do folks in other places.
invoking the family they leave behind as A joint project between Carnegie
living memorials. This, however, places Mellon’s Robotics Institute and the
you in the uncomfortable position of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center,
entrusting how you’ll be forever remem- for example, is developing robots to help
bered to your offspring. Keep in mind the elderly live longer on their own with-
these are the same people you spanked, out needing to enter an assisted-living
disciplined and repeatedly embarrassed home. And according to Ken Gabriel, a
when they were teenagers. founding co-director of a Pittsburgh-based
Finally, there is the work we leave nanotech initiative called the MEMS
behind, which can serve as a tribute. But Industry Group, MEMS (MicroElectro-
few of us bequeath bodies of work that Mechanical Systems) technologies, which
have the shattering effect of, say, will operate inside the human body at the
Shakespeare or Einstein. Much as we scale of clusters of cells, are under devel-
would like to think otherwise, not many of opment. They will monitor key internal
us are likely to head chapters in the organs and obediently deliver reports on
Encyclopaedia Britannica. how they’re doing when an electronic
With death so severely outflanking us wand is waved in their vicinity. Other
like this, what are we to do? MEMS devices promise to deliver drugs,
Personally, I’m prepared to hang on as hormones and biochemicals in just the
long as my rattled brains and shriveled right doses at just the right time, like arti-
shanks let me. As a card-carrying baby ficial glands tailor-made for reducing pain
boomer, I’m counting on medical break- or rectifying imbalances that often accom-
throughs that will amend the universal pany the advance of age.
genetic contract that reads: “The deteriora- Pittsburgh has also been a leader in
tion of the 100 trillion or so cells that com- transplant surgery for more than a decade,
pose you is an irreversible and foregone a breakthrough that has stopped death in
conclusion. Please accept this and get on its tracks thousands of times. Building on
with what life you have remaining. Time is those successes, the McGowan Institute for
running out.” Regenerative Medicine is pioneering the
True, time is—but if you scan the tech- design of bioartificial hearts, lungs and liv-
nological horizon, my hopes for a contract ers: high-tech bridges to more permanent
amendment turn out to be not altogether solutions. UPMC is also developing ways
delusional. In fact, you can make a reason- to genetically manipulate transplant tissue
able argument that we may, at last, have to reduce the need for drugs that suppress
death in our crosshairs, though we aren’t the immune system.
yet able to pull the trigger. Not only that, Where have these and other efforts got
we may be living in just the right city for us over the past 50 years? Pretty far. Today
carrying off this neat little trick. we’re expected to live to 77. In 1950 it was

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Since death is, collectively, a little
bit closer around these parts,
maybe we pay closer attention to it
than do folks in other places.

68. According to the National Center for Thomas, that they actually do plan to “go
Health Statistics, deaths from heart disease gentle into that good night.” (We’ll see.)
have dropped 40 percent since 1970, and The main argument for not living too
since 1990 cancer mortality rates have long is the feeble factor. Who wants to
declined 20 percent. It seems we are not reach old age and then spend the next 100
quite as mortal as we used to be. In years in elderly care facilities drooling on
Western Europe and Japan, people are him- or herself, dependent on Depends,
doing even better. trying to recall the next sentence he or she
There’s a startling pattern emerging wants to say?
here—one that’s hard to reconcile with I’m not a big fan of this variety of long
our deeply ingrained acceptance of death. life either. But let us suppose that the
In an upcoming book, A Short Guide to a future version of old age is not the enfee-
Long Life, futurist Ray Kurzweil holds that bled, brittle variety we mostly see around
current trends show that by 2015 we will us. Suppose that we could count on being
be elongating our lives by more than a vital, sharp, even strong in our dotage?
year every year. Do the math. This con- Trends already indicate this is starting to
ceivably means that a significant number happen. Statistics based on the federal
of us who are still alive today may survive government’s Program of All-inclusive
our way into immortality, or at least into Care for the Elderly show that the number
lives of long and biblical proportion. It’s of people over the age of 55 with chronic
not so much that we have eliminated disabilities that require help walking or
death; we are just getting very good at getting dressed has dropped 6 percent in
buying time. the last 20 years. Add in drugs and proce-
New technologies, and the new medical dures that reduce arthritic pain, enhance
breakthroughs that rush in with them, are sexual performance, retract wrinkles and
advancing at an exponential rate. That improve eyesight, and you begin to see
means we can expect to make more that old age doesn’t have to be a decrepit
progress in the next 50 years than we made march into weakness, isolation and bad
in the last 700. (We were struggling to daytime television.
escape the Dark Ages 700 years ago.) You can also argue that the current crop
Suppose in 20 years, when you hit today’s of medical miracles (often, admittedly, not
expected date with death (age 77), new quite as miraculous as advertised) is really
medical procedures will have advanced as just a warm-up for the truly powerful vari-
much as they have since 1950. Chances eties on the horizon. The McGowan
are that whatever is about to do you in, Center’s explorations today of bioartificial
unless it is a speeding bus or an angry organs are crude precursors to the human-
spouse, will now be fixable in 2024. And if made, molecularly assembled biomachines
you are repaired and gain another 10 years that will some day aid your heart or pump
in the bargain, chances are that the newer your testosterone just as effectively as the
breakthroughs made in the intervening natural versions.
decade will buy you still more time. Nanotechnologies 20 years down the
road will very likely be capable of cleaning

W
hen I pass this scenario out the plaque in your arteries or hunting
around among friends and down and destroying cancer cells one mol-
family, the general reaction is, ecule at a time. The titanium mechanical
“I don’t want to live forever.” Some, just a prostheses that currently (and painfully)
spare few, say they are all for it, but most replace joints will themselves be replaced
say, contrary to the advice of poet Dylan by bioengineered polymers that are inject-

96 PITTSBURGH APRIL 2004


ed into a pained limb and then grow natu-
rally to replace damaged tissue. Genetic
therapies will eliminate or treat diseases
like sickle-cell anemia, schizophrenia or
cystic fibrosis that currently wipe out or
debilitate millions. They may even make it
possible to grow our own replacement
organs so that we can have them on hand
when the original gives out.
The really big breakthrough, however,
will come when scientists finally track
down the nastiest disease of all: old age
itself. There is no clear reason why cells
begin to misfire with age to create less-
than-perfect replacements for themselves.
They just do. It may be genetically pro-
grammed; it may be thanks to roaming
bands of oxygen molecules called free rad-
icals that tear apart the invisible chains of
matter within us atom by atom. But as we
drill down into these invisible worlds,
we’re finding ways to increasingly
rearrange things to our satisfaction. Soon
enough, we may manage to refine the
work to the point at which we can not
only slow or halt the inevitable deteriora-
tion, but also molecularly reverse it so that
no matter how many years you spend on
earth, you can pass them feeling as you did
at age 35. You will be handed, in other
words, a new you.
So maybe Hindus, Buddhists and rein-
carnationists can say they had it right all
along—except that with this second
chance, we’ll be aware that it IS a second
chance. Or will we finally have created
heaven on earth? That’s debatable. What,
after all, will we do with all of us who refuse
to die? Florida is only so big. Will our own
longer lives allow us to save the 3 million
children who die each year from starvation,
or eliminate war, greed and poverty?
In a strange way, maybe. I believe the
accrued wisdom that piles up with our
lengthened lives will help. So much of it
currently goes out the door with death,
locked in the person who accumulated it.
How much better off would we be if
Leonardo and Shakespeare, Einstein and
Confucius had lived even another 50
years? I suspect that by combining our
newfound banks of human wisdom with
ever newer innovations, we’ll get better at
solving the looming, ugly global problems
that lie ahead. Call me an optimist, but I
think history, so far, is with me on this.
After all, we are all still here to hope,
aren’t we?

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