Advances in medical care in recent years have
enabled many people to live longer and have a good quality of life.
Recently I was fitted with a small pump in the left ventricle of my
heart. This means that although my quality of life is 100 times
improved and I am able to live a reasonably normal life, I do need
medical supervision, replacement batteries and equipment on a
reasonably regular basis.
I have come to call life that is dependent on
a level of continuing support “extra life”. It is not quite the
same as life before – it is life that would not be available but
for help. I find that a number of people who receive continuous
medical support agree with me that extra life is something
different, a new phenomenon in human experience.
Let us imagine it is the year 2025 – medical
advances enable people to live longer and with a good quality of
life. Nevertheless they require continuing medical help. What will
be the consequences for society of further extension of their life
span? There are some people who believe – they are called
“transhumanists” – that we will be able indefinitely to postpone
death through improved medical technologies. So a longer-living,
semi-dependent population may grow. This possibility, signalled as
it is with current advances such as my pump, as well as in genetics
and biotechnology, needs to be prepared for.
One way of preparing for this kind of future
is to see what people in these early stages of life-extension
technologies are finding. Five factors govern the appeal of extra
life: relatively painless and convenient equipment and prompt and
efficient maintenance; quality of life; personal independence;
being able to carry on making a useful contribution to society; and
the relief of anxiety, including about death. For me, looking death
in the eye made me less afraid of it and that gives me a lot of
will power to use my extra life well.
But extra life raises questions for the
community. The growth of an older population in the last 100 years
has had profound effects on society as it is. Now it seems possible
we will extend survival and lifespan further. But can society
sustain the cost of a growing aged or medically dependent
Can we increase and develop the contributions
of older people to society, so as to enhance its wealth? How can
extra life be a positive advantage to society? If life is
prolonged, how are we going to deal with death? Should we have a
right to die and, if so, under what circumstances?
These are large questions. With the support of
the National Heart Research Fund, I have established a working
party on extra life to explore these matters, and we have heard the
views of all those engaged in social and community services. I hope
that, for once, we can think about the future before it
Peter Houghton is a retired
sociologist and psychotherapist. E-mail: PieterVR@aol.com