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Will you live to 100? Should we tell people that they have (or lack) the genes for long life?

In the news today – scientists have identified a cluster of longevity genes. From the Daily Mail

A genetic test which tells whether you will make it to your century has been developed by scientists.

The computer program will give individuals their odds of reaching the age of 100 – and tell them whether their chances are higher or lower than average.

Its inventors, from the respected Boston University in the U.S., say it will allow those not blessed with the cocktail of 'centenarian genes' to make changes to their lifestyle to maximise the time they have.

Professor Julian Savulescu, an Oxford University ethicist, said: 'I believe it is highly in your interests to have this information because even if there is nothing you can do about it, it can help you plan your life.

What do you think? Is it a good thing to know if you are predisposed (or not) to long life?

What if this discovery led to many of us being able to live to 100? Would that be a good thing?

other reports: New York Times

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4 Comment on this post

  1. As technology starts to come on stream allowing us (i) to have a clearer idea of how long we are likely to live, and (ii) to extend our lifespan, perhaps radically, these are important questions.

    Picking up on Janet Radcliffe-Richards comments in her post “foetal pain and the abortion debate”, the best answers will (in my opinion) involve an explicit statement of the fundamental values on which they are based, and I remain convinced that these have to be chosen, rather than being the result of logical deduction. This also means that different people will answer the questions differently, without one answer being “better” or more “right” than the other (provided that both are logically consistent).

    It is an empirical fact that many people would prefer not to know how long they are likely to live. It is also the case that planning does not necessarily make you happy. Some people prefer life to be an adventure, where you never quite know what is coming around the corner. This is not because they are stupid, it is because they value adventure and uncertainty.

    This discovery alone will not lead to many of us being able to live to 100, but it is part of a wider trend which could indeed have that effect, at least for some. In principle I think this is a good thing, but there are important caveats. If we value equity, for example, we may worry that increasing medical technology will increase inequality and the resulting frustration and resentment it brings. It will be longevity for the favoured few. We may also consider that it is unwise, perhaps even irresponsible, to stoke such dreams when we are facing such threats (environmental, geopolitical,…) to the civilisation we currently enjoy.

    Perhaps a more fundamental concern that many people have is that the prospect of radical life extension is simply too weird. This sounds daft, but I believe it needs to be taken seriously. Speaking for myself, I certainly do not value the status quo for it’s own sake, and change is in any case inevitable, but as was pointed out in a recent comment history is full of examples where utopic dreams have led to disaster. In this, as in other areas, a balance needs to be struck between hubris and suffocating conservatism. Exactly where to strike the balance is, ultimately, a matter of taste (and open debate).

  2. When it is possible to determine whether a person has a longevity gene, the life insurance companies and the annuity companies will insist that the applicant allow the insurer to have it determined for that applicant. Populists will insist that the information not be made available, of course, so that some sort of averaging gives the people with short-life-genes the advantage of life insurance rates and long-life types the advantage of annuity rates.

    Is the question about revealing the information ethical, assuming some don’t want to know? It may be, but not because people might not want to know, or because the Bible makes the day of one’s death a mystery. It is only if whether or not to spread the costs of annuities and life insurance is an ethical question. I don’t think it is; I think it is strictly a political (justice?) question.

  3. Dennis, I’m not quite sure about this distinction between “ethical” and “political” or “justice-related”.

    I guess I’m interpreting the term “ethical” in quite the wide sense that any question of the form, “Is this a good thing or not?” is by definition an ethical question (assuming that the “thing” in question is something that humans can influence). And I define “good” in such a way that the question is basically equivalent to, “Should this be done?”, and this is precisely the kind of question one is generally asking in political discussions. To the extent that there is a difference, it is that in my experience the term “ethical” is generally used either to denote red lines in individual behaviour (as in the expression, “That’s unethical”), which for one reason or another have not (necessarily) become legal red lines, or to denote discussion of general principles, with specific cases being used as examples rather than as direct objects for decision-making. In other words, what we do in this blog. With this in mind, whether this kind of information should or should not be made available is by definition an ethical (as well as, potentially, a political) question.

    That being said, the point you raise concerning the likely behaviour of insurance companies is of course highly relevant, at least in those countries that do not enjoy socialised medicine.

  4. I think we have a tendency to place too much value on information regarding what we are as opposed to how we ought to live our lives. If I were to find out that I was predisposed to live a short life (I am 63 so I am probably out of the short-life category) should I live a different life then the one I would live if I were predisposed to live a longer one? The underlying question is, are there designs for living that are preferable regardless of how long one lives so that if one lives one of these types of life one will flourish. Is this not really a question of what our norms and values are and how we utilize them to construct goals and objectives that we think will lead to worthwhile lives?

    As far as others, i.e., insurance companies knowing this information, I am inclined to think that they should not have this information and that we should all be treated according to how we fulfill some recognized defensible design for living. For example, if a person smokes they should pay more for insurance then one who does not. Smoking increase the risk of getting certain diseases so the person who smokes should recognize that it is fair that they pay for increasing their risk of getting some disease that non-smokers are trying to avoid by not smoking.

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