How Long Would You Want to Live?

At birthdays, I’ve heard people wish others they live to 120. It’s a nice thing to say, since everyone wants to live a long life, no? Well, let’s see.

Other than the possible but statistically unlikely age of 120, let’s not make any unfounded assumptions about the rest of the world. That means, no anti-ageing miracle breakthrough, no cyborg-like mechanical integration, no brain-in-a-jar virtual reality, no special pleading.

Imagine Longoria, a 30 year old female born in a developed country, married with 2 kids, ages 1 and 4. According to the United Nations World Population Prospects, 2012 Revision, her life expectancy is around 80, and her children’s life expectancy is around 85 or so.

Cognitive Impact

Some say age-related cognitive decline starts in the 50s, while a more recent study shows that it starts in the 20s-30s. They all agree that cognitive decline accelerates towards the end. By 60 there usually is some objectively noticeable effects despite the self-delusion, and it is hard to imagine what an additional 60 years of decline will do after that. At 110 there is unlikely to be much of a mentally functioning “self” left, nor a veridical memory of it. And then come 10 long years to deteriorate. If Alzheimer’s/dementia sets in, which will for 1 in 5 reaching 80, the remaining decades would be more of a burden.  Unfortunately even if one does not have it by then, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every 5 years after 65 simply due to age.  It is hard to extrapolate to 120 due to low sample size, but the odds are not in one’s favor.  There is little joy in living to 120 if one cannot reasonably make sound decisions.

With the ability to learn, think, and remember diminished, it is likely that Longoria will spend decades behind the technology curve. Imagine an average 90 year old today in the digital, wireless, always connected world, marveling at how much the world has changed in a few short years, and how detached that must feel. Longoria will have 30 years of continued mental decline on top of 30 years of rapid technological advance, after she hits 90. Of course the premise is that keeping up with society in general is desirable. An alternative is to keep up with her peers rather than the larger general society; however this option is no longer available as all of Longoria’s peers would be dead for decades.

Physical Impact

The ageing process is brutal and unrelenting. Few if any machines can run for 100 years without major overhaul; similarly, virtually every piece of original equipment in the body will experience wear and tear, breakage and replacement. From vision, hearing, mobility, strength, endurance, to any other objective measure of health, Longoria will be on a steady decline.

Most seniors end up losing mobility and consequently their independence. For many, that happens around 85-90. Let’s give it the benefit of a doubt and say that happens to Longoria at 100. She will spend 20 long years using a walker, wheelchair, or in bed, needing assistance for even the most basic daily needs.

Social Impact

Undoubtedly, Longoria will outlive her spouse, her children, and her friends by decades. There is a very real possibility that she will outlive most of her grandchildren as well, and those grandchildren that have not died will likely be quite old and not in a position to be caregivers themselves.

All of Longoria’s old friends will have long died, and any new friends that still survive will be decades younger than her, and probably have a few generation gaps. It is unlikely that real, meaningful companionship will be attainable, especially with the cognitive decline. It is lonely at the top.

Financial Impact 

Most people plan for retirement and build their nest egg for 20-30 years at most. When the savings run dry, and obviously unlikely to generate new income, the situation becomes rather dire. Medical costs generally increase as people age, and senior care is not cheap. Most likely Longoria will run out of retirement savings, and become a significant financial burden on the children and grandchildren. On the bright side, she will have received more than her fair share of whatever social benefits exist at the time. If any.


Sometimes death is not the worst thing. I’ve heard of the victim’s family asking the judge to spare the killer’s life; they wanted life in prison without parole instead for him, preferably with big black dudes with testosterone squirting out their pores as roommates, and they wished him a long, eventful life. Seems a lot more vicious than death.

Intentions aside, I consider living to 120 a curse.

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