The United States government is over $17 trillion in debt. That is over $56,641 of debt for every man, woman, and child in the country.
In the past four years alone, debt has skyrocketed from 75% to more than 105% of GDP:
It's not just the size of the debt itself, but the pace at which it is increasing. In fiscal 2013, interest payments on the debt totaled $222.75 billion, or 6% of all government spending. Some money funds have stopped buying securities due to fears of a US default, demonstrating to us that the process of issuing securities for debt cannot continue forever. The more debt our government builds up, the harder it is to keep borrowing.
The source of much of this growing debt is spending on Social Security and Medicare. If we are going to pay for these programs in the long run, we need a new strategy. According to New York Times blogger Nate Silver:
It’s one of the most fundamental political questions of our time: What’s driving the growth in government spending? And it has a relatively straightforward answer: first and foremost, spending on health care through Medicare and Medicaid, and other major social insurance and entitlement programs.
Here's the projected increase in Medicare spending through 2050:
Besides the skyrocketing of government debt, we have a more fundamental economic challenge; the number of the old is rapidly growing in relation to the young. In Japan, the average number of children per family is only 1.3 (the replacement rate for zero population growth is 2.1), and one in five Japanese are seniors. By 2050, that is projected to be two in five. That means that every retired senior will need one person of working age paying taxes to fund their state benefits. In the United States, Social Security and Medicare benefits per senior is over $25,000 annually. The US, while not in as extreme of a situation as Japan, is not far behind, driven by the greying of the Baby Boomers.
This trajectory is not sustainable; the risks of massive structural debt have been calculated by the Congressional Budget Office, among others. Unless something fundamental is changed, interest payments will start making up a dangerous percentage of the federal budget. The government will need to print so much money to pay its bills that runaway inflation will become all but inevitable.
In his new book, The Ageless Generation, Alex Zhavoronkov, Ph.D, the director of the Biogerontology Research Foundation, proposes novel solutions to the crisis -- invest in healthspan-extending therapies and provide online education so seniors can continue to learn new skills and contribute to the economy well past the age of 65.
Some of the points made by Zhavoronkov in the book:
- Much medical research provides little tangible benefit, and funds should be redirected to efforts that tangibly improve long-term human health, such as regenerative medicine. According to Zhavoronkov, less than 2% of the National Institutes' of Health budget over the last 20 years has gone to regenerative medicine -- the most promising field of anti-aging research. Given the the stated mission of the NIH is "to seek fundamental knowledge... to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability," this is curious indeed. One study, which took ten years and millions of dollars, was to study the long-term effects of stress on elderly women who have had hip surgery. The conclusions? "Hip surgery leads to stress; stress leads to other illnesses; these illnesses in turn increase the risks of morbidity and mortality." Was it worth millions of dollars to figure out this obvious conclusion? In his book, Zhavoronkov argues that we can "no longer afford to spend lavishly on medical research for the sake of pure research," and should "place a higher priority on research that can potentially have a meaningful impact on overall health or health-care expenses."
- Regenerative medicine is in a far more advanced state than most people realize, and if we put serious funding towards it, we can expect concrete dividends in terms of improving the health of seniors. To quote directly from the book: "Scientists have increased the life span of C. elegans--a type of worm--by ten times. Fruit flies--another common laboratory test subject--have lived four times longer than normal. Genetic therapies have allowed mice to reach the equivalent age of 160 in human years. This is particularly significant because mice as so genetically similar to humans. Hearts have been grown from a single cell and successfully transplanted into living, breathing animals. Humans have achieved a functional age that is 15 years younger than their biological age. Cancers have been cured in animals that are very similar to humans. The pieces of the technological and medical puzzles to extend longevity, and more to the point, health longevity, are now coming together. The remaining pieces, or at least enough pieces to make a dramatic change in the health of seniors, can be found within a decade--if there is sufficient research funding to make it happen."
- Spending on Social Security and Medicare is out of control, and the projections make it look even worse. There is not enough revenue to tax our way out of this mess. The 2012 Social Security Trustees Report shows a surplus of $69 billion, but Table II.B1 of that report shows $102.7 in "income" from "Reimbursements from General Fund of the Treasury." The very same table shows $114.4 in bond interest as revenue, but new bonds have to be issued to pay that bond interest. So, contrary to the official report that the Social Security trust fund operated with a surplus of $69 billion in 2012, it actually ran at a deficit of $148.1 billion. Medicare is even worse, with real operating losses of $256.7 billion, when you subtract out revenue from the General Fund of the Treasury. Meanwhile, deficit spending is $135 billion per month. Even if we doubled effective tax rates for all workers making more than $113,000/year, it would only cover less than half of current deficit spending.
- The only realistic way to lower Medicare expenditures and keep the economy afloat is to develop therapies that improve human health and change the culture of retirement. The concept of retirement at age 65 is a relatively recent invention, dating to the late 1950s. Prior to that, retirement was regarded as "being put out to pasture"; to be excluded from productive society, made useless. "Retirement" was viewed negatively, not positively. Nowadays, due to improving knowledge regarding the causes of aging and the availability of better medical treatment, people have the choice to remain healthy for much longer than before, the question is whether we choose to exercise it. Some choose to become obese, others choose to continue work well into their golden years. Thanks to online education systems like Coursera, we're entering a world where people can choose to affordably continue learning and apply their job skills even at an later age. Lifelong learning is the way of the future.
This concludes my summary of Alex Zhavoronkov's arguments in The Ageless Generation. Many economists and public policy wonks are not aware of this third option, beyond draconian tax increases and the total disintegration of the social safety net. Given that serious life extension is within reach, we should not abandon the elderly by funding medical research based on extraneous fads that does not materially contribute to the well-being of real people. By focusing on aging research, namely regenerative medicine, we can extend healthspans and ensure that our citizens lead happy and productive lives well into their 80s and 90s.
The International Aging Research Portfolio by Alex Zhavoronkov
The Seven Deadly Causes of Aging, Aubrey de Grey's program to halt age-related decline
Regenerative Medicine on Wikipedia
My friend Kent Kemmish, at Halcyon Molecular, has offered to put up $50 for someone who does the best animated flash version of Nick Bostrom's classic essay "The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant" (German version). Let's say that the challenge stands for one month, until August 7th.
My other friend Kevin Fischer is also putting in $50 for a total of $100.
Would anyone else be interested in adding to that purse? We probably need to boost it by a few times to make this happen.
Kent Kemmish initially put in $50.
Kevin Fischer put in $50.
Luke Parrish put in $50.
Steve put in $50.
Christopher Hamersley put in $50.
Lincoln Cannon put in $50.
Didier Coeurnelle put in $200.
The purse is now at $500.
Kickstarter won't work because it has to be created by the person who does the project, and they are encumbered by having to promise deliverables. Both of these do not apply in this situation.
A new article from Ben Best in Cryonics magazine:
I am an ardent supporter of Dr. Aubrey de Grey and his work to advance rejuvenation science. The man is priceless and unique in his concepts, brilliance, dedication, organizational abilities, and networking skill. His impact on anti-aging science has been powerful. I have attended all four of the conferences he has organized at Cambridge University in England. For the February 2006 issue of LIFE EXTENSION magazine I interviewed Dr. de Grey, and for the December 2007 issue of LIFE EXTENSION I wrote a review of ENDING AGING, the book he co-authored with Michael Rae.
Dr. de Grey asserts that aging is the result of seven kinds of damage -- and that technologies that repair all seven types of damage will result in rejuvenation. His seven-fold program for damage repair is called SENS: "Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence". Dr. de Grey asserts that repairing aging damage is a more effective approach than attempting to slow or prevent aging, and I agree with him. Being an ardent supporter of SENS has not stopped me from simultaneously being a critic of aspects of his program that I think are flawed or deficient. I will attempt to outline some of my criticisms in simple language, assuming that my readers have some knowledge of basic science.
Ferriss is on the bleeding edge of a new trend in self-tracking and experimentation. "It's happening because almost everyone has a data-gathering device," he says. "It's never been easier to gather your own data in an actionable way." Case in point is one of his former investments, DailyBurn.com, which tracks your diet and workout sessions using an iPhone. Other sites such as CureTogether.com let you open-source clinical trials, so you can see which do-it-yourself experiments work. Meanwhile, new organizations like the Quantified Self and the Immortality Institute are connecting self-experimenters who want to trade data in a centralized fashion.
Tim Ferriss is an interesting fellow. His approach to fitness can simply be summed up as a combination of aggressiveness, self-monitoring, and the scientific method.
Covered by the Guardian last month:
Cleopatra may have bathed in asses' milk to preserve her youth but Nursultan Nazarbayev, the autocratic president of Kazakhstan, wants nothing less than an elixir of life to keep him going.
Not satisfied with 19 years in charge of the gas-rich central Asian state, Nazarbayev urged scientists today to unlock the secret to immortality.
The 70-year-old leader stressed in a speech that a new scientific research institute in the capital Astana should study "rejuvenation of the organism," as well as "the human genome, production of human tissue and creation of gene-based medicines".
In an aside to students, Nazarbayev added: "As for the medicine of the future, people of my age are really hoping all of this will happen as soon as possible."
Robert Freitas' book chapter for The Future of Aging compilation is now online. It looks very interesting. Freitas always produces fantastic work, that's one of the reasons Kurzweil constantly cites him. Here's the abstract:
Nanotechnology involves the engineering of molecularly precise structures and molecular machines, and nanomedicine is the application of nanotechnology to medicine, including the development of medical nanorobotics. Theoretical designs for diamondoid nanomachinery such as bearings, gears, motors, pumps, sensors, manipulators and even molecular computers already exist. Technologies required for the molecularly precise fabrication of diamondoid mechanical components and medical nanorobots, along with feasible strategies for the mass production of these devices, are the focus of active current research. This chapter describes a comprehensive solution to human morbidity and aging which will be attained when mankind has established control over all critical molecular events in the human body through the use of medical nanorobotics. Medical nanorobots can provide targeted treatments to individual organs, tissues, cells and even intracellular components, and can intervene in biological processes at the molecular level under direct supervision of the physician. Programmable micron-scale robotic devices will make possible comprehensive cures for human disease, the reversal of physical trauma, and individual cell repair. This leads to the complete control of human aging via nanomedically engineered negligible senescence (NENS) coupled with nanorobot-mediated rejuvenation that should extend the human healthspan at least tenfold beyond its current maximum length. The nanomedical solution is the final step in the roadmap to the control of human aging.
Continue. I talked to Freitas about this work, and he said, "It's a major piece of work -- a current update and the most comprehensive summary so far of the many potential applications of advanced diamondoid medical nanorobotics to conventional and anti-aging medicine."
Here's the press release:
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif., Dec. 9, 2010 /PRNewswire via COMTEX/
The global scientific community is increasingly recognizing the role of rejuvenation biotechnologies in addressing age-related disease. This week, Arizona-based businessman Jason Hope announced a $500,000 donation to SENS Foundation, a California-based non-profit organization that works to develop, promote and ensure widespread access to rejuvenation biotechnologies which comprehensively address age-related disease.
â€œI have had great interest in the SENS Foundation and Dr. Aubrey de Grey's work for some time now. I believe their work is essential to the advancement of human medicine and their approach to the overall problem of human aging and its associated diseases (Alzheimer's, Atherosclerosis, Diabetes, etc.) is the only way to go. Their work and the work of others that they support will drive the complete redefinition and reshaping of the healthcare, pharmaceutical, and biotech industries as we know them today. The advancement of rejuvenation biotechnologies is not only extremely important, but it is the future. I am honored to support the SENS Foundation in its efforts, and hope my support helps drive faster results for all of humanity,â€ said Jason Hope.
The donation was announced by SENS Foundation CEO, Mike Kope, at Tuesday's 'Breakthrough Philanthropy' event hosted by the Thiel Foundation, in the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.
"We need to create an entirely new biotech industry. That's why we created SENS Foundation: to be a credible catalyst for change; to be a public research and outreach organization devoted to the creation of a new field- rejuvenation biotechnology. To that end, we are proud that our projects are capturing the imaginations of top tier collaborators in biotech and regenerative medicine. Jason Hope's donation is a major contribution, enabling us to build on our existing collaborations in 2011, and accelerating our progress in the fight against age-related disease," said Mike Kope.
"I enjoyed hearing a lot of great presentations at the Breakthrough Philanthropy event," said Thiel Foundation chairman Peter Thiel. "But for me, the highlight of the whole evening was hearing about Jason's bold commitment to defeating aging."
SENS Foundation CSO, Aubrey de Grey, described the use to which Hope's donation will be put:
"Arteriosclerosis - hardening of the arteries - is the main cause of increased blood pressure (hypertension) in the elderly, which in turn exacerbates major aspects of aging such as diabetes. It is caused largely by the unwanted accumulation of molecular bonds between the proteins that hold the cells of the artery in place - the extracellular matrix. The same process causes long-sightedness (presbyopia) and contributes to skin aging. I am delighted that Jason's donation will fund our work on the pharmacological breaking of these unwanted molecular bonds, and the restoration of elasticity to the body's extracellular matrix."
To view Mike Kope's announcement of Jason Hope's donation at Tuesday's 'Breakthrough Philanthropy' event and to learn more about SENS Foundation visit: http://sens.org/node/1858
Congratulations to SENS. I can't wait to hear more about their research as it progresses, and I think Sarah Marr is doing a great job with SENS communications.
There's also some coverage from KurzweilAI.net about the recent SENS meeting in Los Angeles.
On Facebook, Aubrey de Grey said:
Stari is right. Spectacularly oversold. The mice are broken in one very well-understood way (no telomerase, so eventually over-short telomeres), and they have been constructed so that that problem can be fixed with a drug, and lo, lots of the downstream consequences of the problem are also fixed. Duh.
Michael: the cancer issue is not really relevant here, no, because mice have lots of telomerase normally and don't use telomerase thrift as an anti-cancer tactic.
Prior to that, I had said:
I'm surprised this happened so soon. Nothing like this has been achieved before. The lack of increased cancer risk is the key point.
Again, even if this is fixing something deliberately broken, I wasn't aware of rejuvenation like this being achieved before. I must admit that in this field I generally just follow the popular science material and don't delve too much into the literature, though. The only blog I really read that goes into the science is Fight Aging. Still, I'm waiting to hear of a prior example of rejuvenation on this scale being demonstrated as a proof of concept.
Reason at Fight Aging is not impressed by the recent Harvard news.
You might look back into the Fight Aging! archives for a primer on the intersection of telomeres, telomerase, and aging. It's interesting stuff, but unfortunately this present research is being headlined as "scientists reverse aging in mice" - which is absolutely not what was accomplished. Reversing an artificially created accelerating aging condition by removing its cause is not the same thing as intervening in normal aging, and it will rarely have any relevance to normal aging. The study results are teaching us something about the way in which telomerase works in mouse metabolism, but I - and other, more qualified folk - are dubious as to the relevance to human aging:
Even if it was reversing an artificially accelerated aging condition, has whole-body rejuvenation of this sort been demonstrated before? Not that I had heard of.
Here's the big news from yesterday. Wow! Regeneration of cells, no higher incidence of cancer. Rejuvenation of the brain and testes was achieved as well:
"When we flipped the telomerase switch on and looked a month later, the brains had largely returned to normal," said DePinho. More newborn nerve cells were observed, and the fatty myelin sheaths around nerve cells -- which had become thinned in the aged animals -- increased in diameter. In addition, the increase in telomerase revitalized slumbering brain stem cells so they could produce new neurons.
To show that all this new activity actually caused functional improvements, the scientists tested the mice's ability to avoid a certain area where they detected unpleasant odors that they associated with danger, such as scents of predators or rotten food. They had lost that survival skill as their olfactory nerve cells atrophied, but after the telomerase boost, those nerves regenerated and the mice regained their crucial sense of smell.
"One of the most amazing changes was in the animals' testes, which were essentially barren as aging caused the death and elimination of sperm cells," recounted DePinho. "When we restored telomerase, the testes produced new sperm cells, and the animals' fecundity was improved -- their mates gave birth to larger litters.
I wonder if there will be any critics out there that still think radical human life extension is infeasible after reading about this.
To assess whether they were fatalistic, women were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with statements such as "cancer is like a death sentence," "cancer is God's punishment," "illness is a matter of chance," "there is little that I can do to prevent cancer," "it does not do any good to try to change the future because the future is in the hands of God."
The dynamics operating in both cases may be slightly different, but the fatalism is the same. People are often happy with things the way they are because worrying or actually doing something seem like too much trouble, or even theologically presumptuous. Thus, it's no surprise that many people aren't interested in cryonics. If you could prove that it worked, that would certainly change people's attitudes, but until then, we should predict low adoption rates for cryonics. Medical "fatalism" is common to everyone -- the question is at which degree one becomes fatalistic. Put another way, everyone has limited time and money to invest in medicine, and everyone has a different threshold at which they care about it. The standard of mainstream acceptability moves towards the direction of more care rather than less over time, which might not always be a good thing, when the interventions aren't proven to be beneficial.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting John Furber, an anti-aging scientist known as the founder of Legendary Pharmaceuticals. The company's homepage has an excellent introduction to the biology of aging and senescence, and a giant chart with over a hundred nodes and links describing the process of aging. (I got to see a large poster version, which really had an impressive visual effect.) Furber's analysis of the mechanisms of aging are interesting because it strongly parallels Aubrey de Grey's but with a slightly different emphasis and other things to say. Furber has an article out in the hot-off-the-press Springer compilation The Future of Aging "Repairing Extracellular Aging and Glycation". He also has a nutrition page on his website.
Furber has been building on his graph for ten years, so it is very well researched.