Should medical science always seek to prolong life?

Author: Chirin Soh
School: Raffles Institution
Year Written: 2019
Grade: N.A.

In 2013, Google announced the creation of the California life company, Calico, which aims to reverse engineer the biology that controls life span. It is looking into age-defying drugs and genetic engineering to enable people to lead longer and healthier lifestyles.  The rise in global average life expectancy, now approaching 70 years, can largely be attributed to advancements in medical research. It has developed cures and vaccines for myriads of once deemed “untreatable” diseases. However, the use of costly medical research, such as those undertaken by Google, to add extra years to the lives of people in developing countries, may seem frivolous and be deemed unjustified. Medical science should not always seek to prolong lives due to the compromises made on quality of life, the greater emphasis needed on improving other aspects of society and the ethical concerns with artificially prolonging life.

Medical science should not always seek to prolong life as it compromises on one’s quality of life. The increased longevity in societies is not necessarily indicative of good health. In reality, most age groups live longer with a disability or other health problems. For instance, chronic kidney disease affects more than one in seven adults. Patients with kidney failure need to undergo dialysis regularly, making them unable to maintain their regular standard of living and continue with their normal activities, causing hopelessness and despair. Alzheimer’s is another age-related disease that affects over 5.8 million Americans. This degenerative brain disorder severely affects quality of life as patients as it gradually causes a decline in memory, behavior, and mental capabilities. In addition, there is a difference between the desirability of being alive within the limits of average life expectancy and attempting to live beyond those limits.

 Many treatments for serious or chronic illnesses cause more negative side effects to the patient and should not be carried out there is no quality to living. Chemotherapy also causes severe consequences of organ failure, depressed immune system or GI bleeding. Going through these treatments may not eventually guarantee success and their survival. The use of life support machines such as pacemakers, defibrillators and ventilators also lead to unnecessary pain. Patients in the Intensive Care Unit are incapacitated for long periods of time to medical purgatory and are in constant discomfort. In such cases, the patients may feel trapped in an inexorable treadmill of painful efforts to postpone the moment of inevitable death. Life becomes sanctioned torture and loses its meaning. It would be immoral to continue the use of medicine to extend their lives, hence medical science should not always seek to prolong life.

Medical science should be aligned with other objectives instead of prolonging life so as to better serve humanity and resolve global issues, such as poverty and famine. In seeking to prolong life, researchers develop  high-priced technology that will be inaccessible by the majority. Only certain segments of the population can benefit from them and live longer. This widens the rich-poor divide and is a waste of resources. Medical science should prioritise the problems troubling the poor, and divert talent and resources away from more frivolous and dispensable pursuits, such as that of longevity.  For instance, hedge fund manager Joon Yun has launched a 1 million dollar prize challenge called the Palo Alto Longevity Prize that challenges scientists to find ways to achieve vitality and longevity. He believes it is possible to hack the code of life and push human lifespan past its maximum. However, this sum of money can be better spent to even out the inequality in today’s world. In a number of African countries south of the Sahara, life expectancy is less than 40 years. This is nearly half the average lifespan in rich and developed countries of 70–80 years. An estimated 800 million people live below the poverty line and face daily struggles of poor nutrition, sanitation and health services. They are susceptible to a plethora of medical problems caused by malnutrition and spread of infectious diseases in their extreme living conditions. Medical science should therefore aim to raise everyone’s lifespan by focusing on ways to improve health care, deliver life saving drugs or surgeries to the poor and not always seek to prolong life.

Medical science should also not always seek to prolong life because of the ethics concerning extending life past the natural human limits. The use of respirators, heart assist devices and other aids in hospitals or other institutions have made it possible to keep a patient alive even after the failure of vital organs that would ordinarily result in death. This new ability to postpone death complicates physician’s responsibility and blurred the vital distinctions between natural death, euthanasia and suicide.Conflict may also arise between the health-care professionals as their decisions are contested by patients and families. The situation can look hopeless to the patient and family but the doctors see room for hope for alleviating the condition or bring about cure. However, doctors also know it is difficult to predict when a patient’s death can occur. Courts have usually ruled in favour of the rational patient’s right to decide on discontinuing such special treatment. In addition, new technology further enhances the humans ability to “play God”. For instance, the Human longevity Inc plans to create a database of 1 million human genome sequences including those of supercentenarians. This aims to shed light on what makes for a longer, healthier life and may lead to future developments in genetic engineering to prolong life. Calico has also recruited Cynthia Kenyon, a scientist acclaimed for work that included genetically engineering roundworms to live up to 6 times longer than normal. It may lead to unforeseen negative consequences because of the complexities of the human genome and insufficient knowledge on them. Other technologies such as 3d bioprinting of organs or use of stem cells to replace organs are also laden with ethical concerns as to how far science can go to alter and enhance humans. To prevent such ethical boundaries from being crossed, medical science should not always seek to prolong life.

However, some may say that the original purpose of inventing and researching medicine is to cure people of disease to live a longer and fuller life. Medical science should therefore seek to increase lifespan, together with healthspan. The Hippocratic Oath swears that treatments will be used for the benefit of the ill and not for harm. This sworn agreement serves as a guiding principle for physicians to seek to prolong life. Our lives and society are troubled by the growing number of loved ones lost to age-related diseases and suffering extensive periods of decrepitude. Medical science can make the latter years vibrant by focusing both on living longer and living better with improved treatment of age-related diseases. Developments are already being seen. Clinical trials by Novartis tested an anti-ageing drug in healthy elderly women for Australia and New Zealand that also enhanced their immunity. There can be more research into Alzhemier’s disease that accounts for large number of deaths of people over age 65. This can extend both lifespans, and improve the quality of life of people in society.

“The more life is experienced as meaningful, the less we are aware of time.” This quote from a paper by Pijnenburg and Leget highlights how humans do not actually seek more time to live but seek meaningful experiences. The main focus of medical science should therefore not be to prolong life but to ensure everyone, regardless of socioeconomic class, is able to live life to the fullest and have a meaningful life.

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