Living for a Century

It’s rare to live to 100 years old. The U.S. Census bureau tells us that the ratio of centenarians to the total population is 1.73 out of 10,000. Of course, even if you make it, you have to wonder about quality of life. Human beings have been enhancing their own performance for centuries, of course. We drink coffee to stay awake and boost our energy. We wear eyeglasses and contact lenses to see better. And, of course, over the last half-century, our quality of life has been enhanced by hip and knee replacements.

Just as medical research focused on the two primary killers – cancer and heart disease – fifty years ago, it now focuses on cognitive and neurological decline. In other words, we’ve figured out how to stay alive longer. Now, we must figure out how to make it worthwhile.

There are several developments coming down the pike. Some will improve the ratio of centenarians to the general population – like the possibility of growing a new human heart in a pig. Massachusetts General Hospital published a paper last year promoting the idea. They tell us there were over 3500 heart transplants performed in 2019. And demand outstrips supply. “A patient in need of a new heart typically waits more than six months for a donor organ to become available, and often much longer. For many, the wait is too long,” the study tells us.

Other developments will enable us to boost our performance by the daily application of a transdermal patch. Using a patch is not new. Smokers use them to absorb some nicotine as they endeavor to quit a bad habit. Hospitals use them to apply nitroglycerin to heart patients. What’s new is the use of patches in theranostics. “Theranostics is the term used to describe the combination of using one radioactive drug to identify (diagnose) and a second radioactive drug to deliver therapy to treat…” cancer according to the University of Iowa Hospital.

In The Awakening of Artemis (to be published on September 29, 2021), I’ve imagined the broader use of transdermal patches. Tara Leto – a fictional Secretary of Defense – is 97 years old and relies on a daily patch to, first, diagnose her need for enzymes and hormones to enhance her on-the-job performance. And, then, to apply what her body needs.

Of course, all of that is meant to maintain performance at or near its peak. There are other developments intended to go beyond what an unenhanced person might be able to do. The Defense Department, or rather its research arm DARPA, began working on neuroprosthetics in the 2010’s. Their goal at the time was to help soldiers who had suffered from Traumatic Brain Injuries by implanting chips in their brains enabling functions that had gone dormant. It’s not much of a stretch to conceive of implants to stimulate the impulse to fight in dangerous situations. I’m talking about fight or flight. It’s a natural brain response to danger. Even a well-trained soldier can succumb to the impulse to flee in the face of mortal danger. But not if an electronic impulse reverses it.

Taking it a step further, a team of scientists at Harvard University have pioneered the development of “mesh electronics.” A device so thin it can be injected into the brain, it provides access to parts of the brain as never before. The hope is that it can be used to help quadriplegics control their prosthetic limbs. The team speculates that the next step is a brain computer interface that, when combined with artificial intelligence, will allow us to “become more capable than ourselves.”

So, what seemed fanciful in late 20th Century dramas like the Six-Million Dollar Man, the Bionic Woman and Robocop is not too far off.

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