A wise teenage girl in the Pacific Northwest who made the world fall in love with a family of vampires once said, “I’ve never given much thought to how I would die.”
She’s the only one. In truth, we humans are deeply preoccupied with how we might die...and even more, preoccupied with the efforts we can take to put it off. Sanitation protocols, germ theory, vaccines, exercise—for centuries, we’ve taken small steps each day to prolong our healthy, functional lives.
But what if we stopped taking small steps and started taking giant ones? What if we could solve ourselves out of aging? What might the world look like if we lived to 100 years, 200 years, or forever?
Today on Thinking Is Cool, we’re exploring just that—how (and more importantly, why) we’re doing our darndest to cheat death...forever.
Thanks as always to Fundrise, Thinking Is Cool’s Season 2 presenting sponsor. And to you! For listening! And hopefully for sharing! You’re the best.
What would you do with your life if you had forever to live it? How would you change? How would your priorities change? Today, I want you to think about just that.
Hello everybody and welcome to Thinking Is Cool, the show designed to make your next conversation better than your last...even if your next conversation is actually just you quoting Tuck Everlasting to someone who’s never seen it before.
My name is Kinsey Grant and I’m a journalist, the host of this show, and a person who’s always struggled to imagine what I might look like when I’m super old. Like will I have grey hair? Is it weird to see an old woman who’s 6 feet tall? I’ve always wondered.
These days, though, I’ve been wondering a little more than usual. See, a few months ago, I went to a small gathering at the Miami home of a very accomplished tech entrepreneur. There were all sorts of people and ideas there and also something called sipping vodka. But one conversation from the many that were had that night has burrowed itself so deeply in my brain that I haven’t gone a day without thinking about it for months now.
That conversation was about the possibility of living forever. Of course it was—this small gathering was constituted of entirely wealthy men in their 40s and 50s...and then me. And Josh. To those men, the idea of living forever or at least for well beyond the expected lifespan we all face was not science fiction. Many of them truly believed that there are people alive today and even sitting on that back veranda who would live to see their 150th birthday.
Imagine what your reality might look like when you hit 150 years old. For me, the year will be 2144. Hopefully we’ll have solved climate change and we’ll be on, like, web 7.4 and the world will be a vastly different place than it was when I was born or than it is today.
But...Do I want to live that long? Should anyone be able to live that long? I can’t stop thinking about it, and that’s why we’re here today. Inevitably, as we extend lifespans with technology and modern medicine, we get cocky. We think about what it might look like to live not for a longer time but forever.
It breeds more questions than answers: Should life be infinite, and if it should, what are the implications of everyday people being able to live forever? Is it something for anyone, or just the wealthy? How would our economy, social safety nets, metrics for success, and more change if we lived beyond 100, 150, 200 years old?
And the uncomfortable question we have to ask: Are we worthy of extending our lives beyond what’s considered possible today? Who are we to decide that we should live forever?
Let’s think about it. But first, a massive thank you to our friends at Fundrise for being this season’s presenting sponsor. We have a really cool project coming out with Fundrise next week and you’ll hear more about what they’re up to later in the episode. Also I’ve been telling you how great they are for eight weeks now...download Fundrise already okay?
And second, believe it or not...there are only two more episodes of Thinking Is Cool left this season once you finish this one.
So my ask for you is this: Why not make the most of it? Why not send this episode or another one to a friend? Why not start a conversation? Why not subscribe to my newsletter with the link I blast all over the internet all the time? Why not?
That’s what I thought. Now, let’s talk about mortality...hot or not? As always, nothing is off limits. Everything is on the table. Take it anywhere. And remember, thinking is cool...and so are you.
*Fade out intro music*
Every morning, I wake up and I do a few very specific things: I drink water with lemon, I wash my face and put on sunscreen, and I gulp down a cocktail of vitamins and supplements—a probiotic, an immune support complex, vitamin C, vitamin D, coconut oil, biotin, vitamin B12, and ashwagandha. None of these things is particularly fun.
But I do them, every single morning, so that I can live not only a healthier...but a longer life. My Mom told me taking my vitamins would make me strong for a long time. The internet told me drinking a gallon of water a day would do everything but solve world hunger. My Dad’s side of the family is prone to skin cancer so I do my daughterly duty by lathering up in SuperGoop every day.
I take active steps every single day to squeeze as much life as I can out of the hand I’ve been dealt. I think we all do in our own small ways.
My question for you, for myself, for all of us...is why. Why are we so preoccupied with, in all honesty, putting off the inevitable by a few years? There’s a lot to unpack psychologically with that question, and I’m not going to try to do it in the next 30 minutes...but I think it’s in part because we humans are just that...human. It’s virtually impossible for us to imagine a world without ourselves.
If I asked you to picture what happens after you die right now, you’d probably imagine Heaven, Hell, purgatory. Maybe you envision yourself as something of an omnipotent presence that sees everything but isn’t seen itself. But regardless of what your imagined post-mortem reality is, you are part of it.
We only know the world and consciousness through our own lens. And it’s natural to want to extend that understanding, that consciousness, for as long as possible. Pair that ache to make this existence last with a modern ethos of applying technology to solve any problem, including it would seem mortality...and you find us where we are today, attempting to extend the human lifespan well beyond what we’d consider possible.
Today, I want you to honestly think about the implications of that attempt. While a lot of what we’re talking about today is pretty cool and pretty inspiring and pretty whacky, it’s also perhaps futile. Remember the second law of thermodynamics? We cannot outrun or outlast or outwit entropy...the wearing down and eventual death of all systems, the universe itself included.
So go into this episode with an open mind, feel free to wiggle around in your own hypothetical rabbit holes, but remember...we’re just here to have fun and think hard and maybe learn something new. This episode is heady, but aren’t the best ones usually that way?
Let’s jump in with an honest look at what it means to live forever.
*Roll transition music*
So what might immortality look like? In most cases, we’re not talking about full-on living forever and never ever dying immortality. We’re talking more about extending human life well beyond what we would consider possible—and doing it sooner than you might think.
From what I can understand of the longevity conversation, there are two incredibly important things to keep in mind before I start talking about redefining immortality and curing aging and all that good stuff:
I find this idea of determining a potential limit on human lifespan to be endlessly interesting. There’s nothing to suggest to us that we can’t live forever...it’s just that we age, and aging comes with ailments that kill us. If we didn’t age, or if we aged differently, we might still be kickin’ at 150 years old.
See, we’ve known since like 1825 that mathematical models of mortality don’t indicate that we hit a point at which it’s statistically impossible that we live to see our next birthday. Thanks to the British actuary Benjamin Gompertz, we know that the risk of death increases exponentially with age...
Until it doesn’t. As people enter old age, the risk of death actually plateaus. [British accent incoming for British actuary Benjamin Gompertz] “The limit to the possible duration of life is a subject not likely ever to be determined,” Gompertz wrote, “even should it exist.”
There is so much we don’t know about our lifespans, and in some ways that’s almost comforting. All we know is that we live and die, and if we want to increase our chances of living longer, there are only a few proven things we can do: eating healthy, exercising, avoiding smoking, and actually castration for men, apparently.
Everything else purported to extend our time in the realm of the living is, honestly, conjecture.
That’s partially because it’s really hard to study how people age, given that our natural lifespan is almost eight decades. It’s easier to run lifelong and efficient studies on animals like mice or worms with short lifespans. And the second reason?
Aging. Aging itself, which is the harbinger of some of our most lethal ways to go like cancer and dementia and heart disease, is not considered a disease by the Federal Drug Administration (it’s a “risk factor”). That means, as Quartz put it, “pharmaceutical companies have had little incentive to create drugs that target aging, which means that foundations and companies have used funds to focus on treating specific diseases.”
This brings us to the first major learning for anyone thinking about living forever: aging and dying are two very different things. I’m going to read you a quote from Quartz, which has some truly incredible journalism dedicated to the idea of hacking ourselves out of death.
QZ: “The University of North Carolina Population Center analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and found that in 1910, infectious diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diarrhea accounted for 46% of all US deaths. In 2010, those conditions accounted for only 3%. Accidents, kidney disease, senility, and cerebrovascular disease (which is a fancy term for problems with the brain’s blood supply) were top-10 causes of death in both time periods, but the total numbers of deaths from these conditions declined 61% from 1910 to 2010. By far, the biggest killers in the developed world today are conditions like heart disease and cancer: diseases directly related to how long we’re living. It’s not necessarily that cancer is becoming more common—it’s that more of us are living long enough to get it.”
Alzheimer’s. Cardiovascular disease. Cancer. As far as the longevity community is concerned, we don’t cure them individually. We cure them collectively, and we do it by first curing aging. I wanted to understand how we came to that conclusion—that disease is a byproduct of aging—so I took to Twitter. There, I came across Nathan Cheng, a so-called longevity maximilaist who’s also the Program Director for On Deck’s Longevity Biotech cohort. A few DMs later, and Nathan and I were on the phone.
NATHAN: These are all diseases where the prospective goes up exponentially as you age. Right? So there's something going on there. And a lot with a lot of these diseases, there's no, uh, good solutions or therapies that are approved.
So really where the credit situation and we're kind of playing whack-a-mole with different diseases. And, uh, this whole idea of actually trying to do something about aging or, or potentially engaging, uh, assaulted infant sort of way is to actually target, you know, the cellular and molecular mechanisms that are responsible for the aging process.
Uh, you know, the thing that actually makes us, uh, ill in older age and actually try and modulate both things of. With, you know, different technologies, you know, biotechnology therapies to be, you know, drugs, uh, therapy, gene therapy, et cetera.
We have to reconsider what it means to age. Sure, it means plucking a grey here and there and gaining plenty of wisdom and hopefully living to see some really cool shit. But it also means opening ourselves up to the possibility of age-related morbidity.
It makes me wonder...is aging an inevitability or a condition to be treated? In the longevity community, it’s both.
As I explored what it meant to reconsider aging for this episode, I kept running into the story of Jeanne Calment, who, when she died at 122 years old, was the oldest recorded person who ever lived. The NYT covered Calment’s life quite a lot, and I found this in a piece about what her life and death taught us to be compelling:
“As the years pass, our chromosomes contract and fracture, genes turn on and off haphazardly, mitochondria break down, proteins unravel or clump together, reserves of regenerative stem cells dwindle, bodily cells stop dividing, bones thin, muscles shrivel, neurons wither, organs become sluggish and dysfunctional, the immune system weakens and self-repair mechanisms fail. There is no programmed death clock ticking away inside us — no precise expiration date hard-wired into our species — but, eventually, the human body just can’t keep going.
Social advances and improving public health may further increase life expectancy and lift some supercentenarians well beyond Calment’s record. Even the most optimistic longevity scientists admit, however, that at some point these environmentally induced gains will run up against human biology’s limits — unless, that is, we fundamentally alter our biology.”
Once we do that, though, there may be no going back. So are we comfortable changing the biology that got us this far? The biology that got us walking on two feet, that got us civilization, that makes us age but also got us love and lust and friendship? What else might we change when we change our biology?
Let’s take a short break to hear from our friends at Fundrise, and then we’ll find out.
*INSERT MID 1 HERE*
Before you heard about how much money you can make investing in private real estate so that you have something to sustain you for the next 150 years...we were talking about the possibility of changing our human biology to evade the Grim Reaper—how to extend life by changing it.
Spoiler: It’s more than drinking Soylent.
There exist a handful of the rare breed of scientists and inventors and technologists with really good PR teams who essentially dominate modern discourse around extending human lifespans. They’re all quoted in the weekend editions and the New Yorker pieces, and they appear to fall into two major longevity camps:
Nathan seems to fall more in the healthspanners camp. And full disclosure, if I had to pick a camp I’d be in that one, too.
NATHAN: What we're trying to do, uh, in the longevity community is trying to, you know, just extend health. And I think everybody can get on board with that. You don't necessarily have to be in to in mortality or whatever. And, uh, and even then like, It's all aging that that's not, that's not the same thing as the mortality anyways, because if you, if you saw aging, you can still get hit by a bus or something like that. That's not going to solve that problem.
It’s a distinct and important difference. Even if we hack our way out of aging, we can never really guarantee physical immortality. Accidents happen. Our physical selves are imperfect.
But what if we extend what we consider to be “existence” beyond just the physical? That’s what some immortalists have in mind, including the famed futurist Ray Kurzweil. His transcendentalist view of longevity suggests that, within just a few decades, technology will allow human beings to move beyond the physical and intellectual limitations of their biology. The idea is called singularity, and it holds that by 2045, AI and biotechnology will have rendered humankind effectively immortal.
It’s suggestive of something close to digital consciousness—physical chaos costs us our bodies all the time, and while we might be able to put off death for a good long while, it comes for us physically at some point or another. What Ray Kurzweil and others like him believe, though, is that we can continue to exist in new and different ways that are less physical.
It should be noted that Ray Kurzweil plans to have his body cryogenically frozen and preserved in the off chance that immortality for the masses doesn’t happen in his lifetime.
That’s the immortalists’ view of living forever. But if we use the word “forever” as something less literal, we find ourselves in the healthspanners realm. As written in the New Yorker, “These scientists focus on the time line: since 1900, the human life span has increased by thirty years—and so, as a consequence, have cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and dementia. Aging is the leading precondition for so many diseases that “aging” and “disease” are essentially metonyms.” Oh also, metonyms are words that are so closely associated that they’re used as substitutes for each other.
Beyond these two approaches to living forever—the immortalists and the healthspanners—there exists a cabal of weird and trippy ideas for extending human life that go well beyond cloning yourself and doing a brain transplant.
But beyond these few potential treatments, the conversation of stopping aging in its tracks remains largely hypothetical. There is still quite a lot we don’t know about the human experience of living and dying, despite the fact that we do it every single day.
What we do know is this: Living forever and extending our healthy, functional lives are two different ideas. They require different research and different solutions. They have different standard bearers and different governing norms.
What they have in common, though, is a central idea: Human ingenuity might be powerful enough to unshackle us from the one true certainty in this life: death. We’re unraveling the idea that, if we’re lucky, we all get 80 years and hopefully most of ‘em will be good. A universal experience, made universally questionable.
But what if we can escape this universal reality of aging and death...but we can’t make it a universal option? Who, then, gets to live forever?
Think on it while we take a break to hear from Pluto, and we’ll be right back.
*ROLL MID 2*
Whether you’re a healthspanner or an immortalist or neither, you live in a world that could very well hack itself out of aging and traditional ideas of dying in your lifetime. Science is effing crazy, and if the last year has taught us anything, it’s that science can move fast. And the people who work in science? They’re heroes. Genius heroes.
So let’s say we crack the code. We end the condition of aging. We extend human life well beyond what’s expected of it today. What happens? The social, ethical, and psychological implications are vast.
I almost said this at the start of the episode, but I didn’t want to spook everyone right away. Sometimes, I get on my mic and talk about problems and their solutions and accountability. Other times, I get on my mic and ask questions. Today is a question day.
Did you really come here for answers? You know I ask questions for a living right…?
If you ask me what living forever looks like or means? I don’t have an answer. I truly don’t know how to form a conclusion on the idea of living forever, but I do know how to think about it after researching this episode for entire days at a time.
So right now, I’m about to present you with some big brain problems that might actually be unsolvable. But from where I sit, writing a podcast that’s all about being more thoughtful and questioning our shared experiences...that’s okay.
Let’s talk, then, about the implications of potentially living forever: ethical, social, logistical, and psychological.
The first and more important is the ethical side of this conversation. Anyone who’s purchased natural health supplements or even just a bunch of leafy greens knows that being healthy in an effort to live a longer, healthier life is not cheap.
The reality is that, even if we solved for aging and death tomorrow, millions of people would be unable to access the kind of healthcare that might make living forever an option.
I mean, just think of health discrepancies that already exist. In our country, we’re talking a lot right now about women’s healthcare. About accessing critical care like abortions and birth control. In one of the world’s most advanced and wealthiest countries, there are women who can’t get the care they need.
Zoom out. In America, dying of malaria would be crazy. But in underdeveloped countries, tons of people die every single day from things like malaria, HIV, and diarrhea. Things we’ve figured out here. But things we’ve failed to figure out everywhere, ethically and equitably.
As the NYT put it: “There are still dozens of countries where life expectancy is below 65, primarily because of problems like poverty, famine, limited education, disempowerment of women, poor public health and diseases like malaria and H.I.V./AIDS, which novel and expensive life-extending treatments will do nothing to solve.”
The cherry on top of all of this? Most of the people pulling the strings in the longevity community are...rich old white dudes, you guessed it. And they’re making money doing so.
Let’s turn again to QZ: “The present-day pursuit of physical immortality—or, at the very least, a substantially extended lifespan—is a booming business. Google has an aging research venture called Calico; tech titans like Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos are investors in startups focused on longevity; and entrepreneurs like Bulletproof Coffee founder Dave Asprey, who has publicly declared his goal of living to 180, have built lifestyle empires around their passion for biohacking.”
I love this from Quartz, too: “That Silicon Valley’s titans believe innovation can help them crack death and aging makes intuitive sense. They’ve spent their entire careers quite literally banking on the idea that science and technology can solve the world’s problems. In much the same way, they’re now both investing in, and profiting from, the idea that it’s possible to outsmart death. Buoyed by the valley’s utopian impulses, these latest attempts to defeat death are an extreme expression of the exceptionalism that shows up throughout the tech sphere. The tech elite don’t have to do their own laundry or shop for groceries or mattresses, because there are apps for that; they don’t have to submit to regulation or feel guilty about making outlandish amounts of money, because their inventions are supposedly changing the world. Now they’re hoping that they, specifically, don’t have to die—a belief that could wind up having big consequences for everyone else.”
My question in all of this: Peter Thiel. Jeff Bezos. Do we trust those kinds of people to determine what’s a necessary medical intervention and what’s extending life beyond reason? Can we trust them to be good moral stewards of...mortality?
I asked Nathan about this and he suggested that it’s a fair criticism. But when we think about longevity, we have to...take the long view. It’s probably going to be very expensive to access medicine and tools to live forever but not always. Patents run out. Generic options hit the market. Prices drop.
But until then, we have a very big, very cumbersome question of access on our hands. Who gets to live forever? Hopefully not only the rich.
Our next big implication of potentially living forever: The social kind. How might our lives and the ways we live them change if we’re expected to live even just 20 or 30 years longer?
Again, I have more questions than answers:
Just some very heavy food for thought.
On to our next big implication of potentially living forever: The logistical—can this planet sustain a human population that lives for longer than a century?
Our planet is on fire, literally, all the time. I’m not so sure it can support our lifestyle, as it exists today, for much longer, let alone our lifestyle should 100 be the new 20.
There’s an important question about overpopulation here. It’s called a Malthusian crisis, named after the reverend and economist Thomas Robert Malthus. Malthus observed a proportional relationship between food supply and population. As we create tools and technologies that lead to higher crop yields, we made more babies and expanded populations.
But left unchecked, Malthusian crisis occurs: population growth outpaces agricultural production, causing famine or war, resulting in poverty and depopulation. Not great things, especially given how hard it’s been to crack this whole mortality thing in the first place.
I asked Nathan about this idea of potential overpopulation, and here’s what he told me:
NATHAN: So in, in, in, you know, Canada, USA and other wealthy nations, actually the fertility rates are quite low. Um, the only reason why populations are not declining is mainly because of immigration. Uh, belief is like, uh, Japan, obviously like the fertility rates are below replacement. So actually I think that's the nature of threat is not overpopulation right in the future. It's actually under population and actually longevity, um, you know, extending human lifespan can help in this regard. Uh, and especially when you're talking about. No pensions. And, uh, people requiring, you know, younger people to support them, uh, because you know, older people can own work, like, uh, being able to extend people functional and healthy lifespans, uh, can also help in this sort of like demographics, um, potential, uh, problem.
It’s a satisfying answer, I’ll admit that much. But I just can’t imagine a future in which we can all live forever and still do so in harmony and equality. It’s tough. It’s freaking me out.
The final big implication of potentially living forever that I want to talk about today is the psychological. We’ve evolved as a species with the psychology of a finite number of years. Even before Drake told us we only live once, we long understood that our time on this Earth is not infinite. To extend the human experience of living beyond 100 or even 150 years would severely impact our perception of, well, being alive.
Would experiences lose their meaning if we knew we had countless more ahead of us? Would the prospect of infinite time breed more nihilism? Would anything matter? Or would the idea of having more time give us cover to fail and start over as many times as it takes?
To me, it begets a more existential question: Do we really want to live longer, or do we just want to live more meaningfully, more completely? I don’t really know, but I do know that my life would look very different if I knew I’d make it to the year 2146.
*Roll transition music*
As both my AP Biology teacher and you know, I’m not someone particularly given to science. But I think this conversation is about a lot more than just furthering the science that might help us live longer and healthier lives.
It’s about asking ourselves, and honestly answering this question: Do we really want to live forever?
There is a stark and unbelievably important difference between living forever and being forever young. I’m about to turn 27 years old, which is by any measure very young. But already, I feel the creeping sensation of age—my knees hurt a little more than they used to, I have this unexplained back pain every now and then, I had to increase the font size on my computer.
Science might be able to solve for that. But what about the aspects of aging that feel much more important than wrinkles and joint pain? Aging is as mental as it is physical, and in some ways that’s one of the most brilliant parts of being alive.
We collect experiences knowing that we might never experience them again. We get smarter, we make mistakes that we actually learn from, we make the most of what we have. And who we have.
The oldest recorded person who ever lived, Jeanne Calment, died at 122 years old, alone and in a nursing home in France. She was very quickly buried, laid to rest without any close relatives in attendance...because they’d all been dead for more than three decades.
To live forever means nothing without friends, family, and partners to do it with. I can’t stomach the idea of living forever without the people I love today by my side.
I don’t think I want to live forever. But even in that statement, there is reticence. I am 26 years old. I don’t want to live forever. But to think that my parents, who are most certainly not in their 20s, might someday not be here? I can’t imagine it without breaking into tears. I want them to always be here. I want my sister and my best friend and my dogs to always be here.
But perhaps the lingering question in all of this is whether I would feel such deep emotional attachment to the people and places I call home if I knew that I’d never have to say goodbye? I think in some ways, our mortality is what makes life worth living. It’s what makes it good and hard and meaningful.
Last week, I asked on Twitter: “if it were scientifically feasible, would you want to live forever?” 632 people voted, and 58.4% of them said no. The reply that left me most deeply impressed was this one from Derek Kubicek: “Time is valuable because it is scarce. As soon as we live forever, we cease to live at all.”
Many who write in the NYT or the New Yorker or the FT of the pursuit to evade death or opt out of aging cite Jorge Luis Borges’s The Immortal. The lesson in that seminal piece was that life itself draws meaning from the inevitability of death.
It’s a lesson that art and literature and the film Tuck Everlasting and even the Twilight series have taught us time and again: Living forever, even if it were possible, might not be living at all.
I want you to think about it. Think about living forever. Think about immortality and health and the perfect lifespan. Ask yourself and your friends and your family...
Good luck out there, and I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say. Reach out and share your thoughts, then when we’re all in our hundreds, we can meet up for a turn of the millennium party. I’ll bring the snacks and drinks. You bring the thoughtful conversation. I’m Kinsey Grant, and remember—thinking is cool and so are you. I’ll see you next time.