Lately, I’ve found myself engaged in several different conversations that have touched on the subject of lifespan — specifically, human lifespan, and just how long or short it can be.
Recently, several people I know, or know of, have had their lives cut short well before they reached what would have been the predicted natural ends of their lifespans — it’s one of the difficult facts of our lives that things like health issues, physical catastrophes, and substance overload can tend to have such effects.
Those things aside, though, it’s tough to argue that the human lifespan hasn’t increased greatly since we started recording our progress here on Earth…
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the human lifespan has even stretched out a bit during my own humble lifetime so far. I feel that I’m correct in recalling the average predicted life expectancy for people here in the United States, where I live, as having been gauged in the low 70’s when I was a youngster, and now that estimate has been beefed up by at least half a decade or so. Here’s some additional scoop from Wikipedia, one of my own go-to sources for information on…well, pretty much anything and everything (approach Wikipedia with as many grains of salt as you deem necessary):
“The U.S. Census Bureau view on the future of longevity is that life expectancy in the United States will be in the mid-80s by 2050 (up from 77.85 in 2006) and will top out eventually in the low 90s, barring major scientific advances that can change the rate of human aging itself, as opposed to merely treating the effects of aging as is done today. The Census Bureau also predicted that the United States would have 5.3 million people aged over 100 in 2100. The United Nations has also made projections far out into the future, up to 2300, at which point it projects that life expectancies in most developed countries will be between 100 and 106 years and still rising, though more and more slowly than before.”
That’s pretty encouraging stuff for anyone who wants to stick around for the party as long as possible. Then again, those statements are only talking about life expectancies in the US. Sadly, figures will vary — often wildly — from country to country, from region to region within a given country, and maybe most distressing of all, from one socio-economic stratum to another within any of those regions and countries. Medical care isn’t of uniform quality or accessibility across the board, as we’re all pretty well aware. Still, compared to our cave-people forebears, we’re in theory able to feel pretty confident that, barring any gross mishaps or dire health-related misfortunes, we’ll get to wander the grounds here on Planet Earth for more than twice as long as they did (and the majority of us don’t have to dodge mastodons or go without things like dental floss and Q-Tips while we do it, although there’s still work to be done as far as getting everyone on board for the basic necessities, let alone the luxuries…).
So, as we continue to live for longer and longer periods, new opportunities arise. And these won’t necessarily always be the greatest things, either: longer lifespans allow for the possibilities of new kinds of diseases having time to find us and then settle in to really do some damage, for example — those same cave-people forebears mentioned earlier didn’t have to stress out too much over things like, say, osteoporosis. Living longer also requires more resources and more money with which to obtain those resources, and all of these demands can cause gargantuan amounts of stress over a period of years.
Then again, longevity can afford terrific chances as well. What might we manage — as individuals and as a species — if we could not only count on living longer, but if we could remain youthful for a greater percentage of those extended lifespans?
Consider the case of one James Marshall Hendrix, better known by his interestingly spelled nickname, Jimi. I probably don’t need to bust out Wikipedia quotes here to inform anyone for the first time that Jimi Hendrix is widely regarded as one of the greatest rock guitarists who ever lived. I will emphasize, though, that while Jimi recorded several landmark albums, electrified the music world, and attained the rare status of “cultural icon,” he managed to do all this despite passing away at the age of…27. Even legions of cave-people managed to live longer than that! So my point is that Jimi was one of those relatively rare cases of someone with prodigious, genius-level ability who actually succeeded in actualizing that talent in a relatively short period of time: he didn’t get his first guitar until he was 15, so he had but a dozen years to pack in all that learning, performing, recording, and history-making wizardry. In other words, he didn’t end up getting to spend many years among us here on the third stone from the sun, but he packed a tremendous amount of experience into that limited allotment of years…
So obviously, we can’t all become guitarists on the level of Jimi Hendrix — the lion’s share of us probably wouldn’t reach those guitar heights even if we had a thousand years in which to practice… But could we at least become decent guitarists if we had more time? Hordes of people will never even touch a musical instrument in their lives, much less master one, and while some of that will come down to things like economic concerns and such, even in areas where life is more rife with leisure and luxury, many people simply won’t have the time for something like schooling and practice with respect to a complicated discipline such as music.
But what if those same people could expect to live another ten years? What about 20? Or 30? 75…?
What could we all accomplish if we simply had more time, and the wherewithal to actually make productive use of that time? Sure, plenty of people would still fritter away those extra years — lots of people will squander just as much time as you give them. But others arguably would not. What might those latter people (the non-squanderers) achieve in their hypothetically extended lifetimes? Picking up the guitar for the first time at age 40 or 50 in our current world would be, at best, a charming diversion or hobby in most people’s eyes, but would anyone see it as a viable career move or a likely conduit for real artistic contribution? Probably not. Our present music industry would most likely tend to discount virtually all newcomers to the field as no longer having any possible remaining potential value at all once they’ve hit their late 20’s. But what if, at age 30 or 40, you still had 60 or 70 excellent, potentially fruitful years lined up ahead of you? You could pick up a guitar for the first time in your life on your 40th birthday, and have four or five of Jimi Hendrix’ guitar-playing intervals (remember, that’s 12 years) to work through.
How many skills could you master in such a longer lifespan? How many languages could you become conversant in? How many books could you write, and how many albums could you record? How many works of art could you paint or sculpt or etch or draw?
I believe that longer lifespans might be one gateway to our species really reaching enlightenment. It seems believable enough to me that one day we humans will crack the puzzle of the aging process, and people will look back on this era and refer to us the way I’ve been referring to our cave-people forebears…and who knows what humanity will be accomplishing then. Here’s a thought: maybe we’ve never encountered intelligent life from Elsewhere yet because we are the leading edge of evolution in the Universe, and it will be left to us to venture forth and explore…and maybe by virtue of the opportunities afforded to us by longer and longer lifespans, we’ll actually have become truly civilized by then, and we can serve as teachers and guides and gurus for other forms of life. Or failing that, maybe we’ll at the very least get our own collective act together here on Earth…
Much of that is just speculation, of course, but whatever our lifespans, I do know that we have a certain amount of time while we’re here, and we — each of us — has no idea when that time will be up. I’d like to make good use of mine, and I’m hopeful and optimistic that we all have it in us to do the same. Are you experienced? I’m trying to be…