Why you should care
In the future, humans will easily live to 150 and die with less fear thanks to psychedelics.
Technology is having an increasing impact in the operating theater and beyond. Yet, as experts reveal in The Future of X: Health, patient treatment in 50 years’ time won’t be based entirely on robots or advanced A.I., but rather on raw human connection. In a new five-part podcast, in partnership with Providence St. Joseph Health, OZY paints a picture of health care in 2069, from the chronic diseases we don’t yet recognize to a world without hospitals. Listen up on OZY.com, Spotify, Apple, Himalaya or wherever you prefer to stream your audio.
Do you think about how or when you’ll die? The possibilities are endless, which can be terrifying. But more than how or when, studies show that fears of dying — often called “death anxiety” — are based not on the future, but on the past: The dying are haunted by thoughts about unfulfilled potential, or about never having told that special someone how they felt.
In a study by the California Health Care Foundation, only 7 percent of hospice patients said they benefited from talking to doctors about their end-of-life concerns. So maybe it’s high time we reframe how we think about death.
“Dying is the ultimate developmental crisis,” says Dr. Ira Byock, founder and chief medical officer for the Institute for Human Caring, part of Providence Health and Services. “It’s not fun and it’s not to be yearned for, but it is also an opportunity to grow,” he says. As a palliative care specialist, Byock has spent a large part of his 40-year career thinking about what it takes to die comfortably. One of the best tools he’s discovered along the way? Psychedelics.
“The psychedelic experience, when done properly, can help us to grow through this experience,” says Byock, who thinks the way we currently care for people nearing the end of life is all wrong. Not to mention costly. A quarter of all Medicare spending gets poured into caring for people in their final year of living, according to AARP. That’s $175 billion spent on palliative care last year alone.
We’re wired to not want to die. We avoid death every day as best we can.
Tristan Edwards, co-founder and CEO of Boston-based Life Biosciences
Studies from New York University and Johns Hopkins, among others, have shown that psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) can reduce death anxiety for the terminally ill and give them a positive new outlook, with few side effects. Could it also help save money by reducing discomfort and depression in people’s final weeks and months?
Today in the U.S., psilocybin and LSD are Schedule I drugs, meaning they’ve been classified as illegal substances with a high potential for abuse. A ballot proposal in California last year would’ve decriminalized possession as well as the sale and transportation of magic mushrooms, but it failed to pass. According to Byock, that should change within the next few years. “At this point in time the medical profession, my profession, must not ignore the potential for these highly promising medications,” he says.
While people may learn to embrace death with the help of hallucinogens, we’ll have another reality to contend with: The average human lifespan will continue ticking upward. One day soon, humans will live to 120 years or more on average.
Advances in this arena will go far beyond today’s makeup creams and magic snake oils. Tristan Edwards, co-founder and CEO of Boston-based Life Biosciences, is working with some of the world’s top scientists to develop drugs that he says will prolong human life. In the not-so-distant future, we’ll be able to take a pill to reverse the body’s aging process and increase our longevity. “I see a world where humans will age without any disease,” Edwards says.
And this could all happen faster than you think. Edwards says the first round of these miracle drugs could be available in as little as three to five years. And reducing the time we spend fighting illness at the end of life means you won’t live to 75 and suffer from poor health for the last five years, Edwards says. Instead, you might live to be 100, and 99 of those years would be great.
“We’re wired to not want to die,” says Edwards. “We avoid death every day as best we can, so I think this is just an extension of that hardwiring that’s in our DNA.”
But getting rid of death anxiety and slowing the aging process are just the beginning. Technology may one day become so advanced that we’ll live forever. Imagine being able to easily replace ailing body parts and outsmart disease. Or maybe we’ll have the ability to perpetually upgrade our bodies — when the current model gets too old or sick, we’ll simply order a new one.
It sounds pretty insane, but futurist Thomas Frey thinks it could happen. One day we might be able to grow “blank bodies” from our own genetic material. Imagine this: A “body farmer” could re-create your face and features you had at age 25, enabling you to look forever young but with the wisdom gained from decades of maturity. Frey points to advances in regenerative medicine like regrowing and 3D-printing organs. “Why not entire bodies?” he asks.
Others think we’ll be able to transcend death in another way. A movement called Transhumanism, from science-fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov and Julian Huxley, now has more than 10,000 members who say they are ready to alter or augment their bodies to live forever. “Radical life extension will be a combination of nanotechnology, robotics, AI and repairing the body at the cellular level,” says Gennady Stolyarov, chairman of the U.S. Transhumanist Party. Stolyarov and his party suggest that even a few billion dollars from private donations, investments or government grants could dramatically accelerate progress in the life-extension field.
But that’s a long way off. When it comes to living forever, we have a much better shot at preserving ourselves in digital form — achieving “digital immortality.” In 2016, entrepreneur Eugenia Kuyda created an AI-powered chatbot based on her friend Roman Mazurenko, who died at age 33 after being hit by a speeding jeep in Moscow. Kuyda and other friends could “speak” with Roman by talking to the digital version of him and asking it questions. The bot’s responses were based on the thousands of text messages and photos that Kuyda uploaded to the neural network controlling its artificial intelligence. While the bot’s responses were fairly basic, creating it led Kuyda to develop a chatbot called Replika that anyone can talk to and feel less alone today.
Perhaps one day we’ll be able to perpetually transfer our consciousness to healthy bodies, or alter and repair our current aging bodies so dramatically that we’ll escape death completely. But before that, we’ll be able to live longer, healthier lives and die — thanks to hallucinogens and other therapies — with less fear, greater comfort and more control.