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Walter M. Bortz II, M.D. Headshot

Dare to Be 100: Google's Hot New App Immortality

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The cover story of Time magazine's Sept. 30, 2013 issue read, "Can Google Solve Death?" It beckoned: Click here, don't die.

Flipping inside the magazine does little to explore this wonderfully provocative cover theme. More to the same point was a Newsweek story July 24 with the banner headline, "You can live forever. Is immortality plausible? Or is it quack science? Two experts face off."

This story involved me because some Newsweek editor had been challenged by the Prudential Life Insurance highway billboards that proclaim "the first person to live to be 150 is alive now."

In pursuit of this he dispatched a major correspondent, Andrew Romano, to facilitate a debate between Aubrey deGrey and myself. DeGrey is a self-appointed activist who specializes in regenerative medicine, which streams from his confidence that recent scientific progress is moving so rapidly that in the immediate future "most people in their 20s now will live to be 150."

I am very skeptical. I am a more traditional geriatrician, having spent most of my last 50 years (I am 83) studying aging and taking care of thousands of old people who did not die because they were old but because they otherwise stubbed their toe. Virtually no one dies of old age, per se, but they died unnecessarily of preventable illnesses. DeGrey and I agreed on that.

The oldest validated person in history was Mme. Calment of Arles France, who died at age nearly 123. I have a copy of her birth certificate in my office and her physician, Robine, has visited me here at Stanford. The other 7 billion of us are trying to catch up. The Super Centenarian (those over 110) Registry currently numbers only around 80 members.

Recently one of our favorite intellectual giants, Stephen Hawking, weighed in on the topic with a posting about his approach to immortality, which he suggests can be approached by downloading our brains onto a computer. It doesn't sound like fun.

Such sci-fi chat to me obstructs us from the really doable job of living fully our allotted natural life time of about 100 healthy years. After all, it is not actually how old you are that matters, but how you are old. Bortz's Law asserts, "it is never too late to start, but is always too soon to stop." The too frequent life course of not living long enough to live into our real potential is my mantra.

My basic understanding asserts that our life span is ordained by the principles inherent in the Second Law of Thermodynamics to which there is no exception, regardless of what DeGrey or Hawking or Ponce de Leon might aspire to. Time marches on, uniquely one directional.

It would be my hope that Google, probably self-conscious because of the gazillions of dollars in their bank accounts, feels a societal responsibility. In seeking to discharge this burden they seek a really BIG challenge. Death is a really big challenge.

I would rather they select something more real, such as attacking the horrible female oppression in the Middle East, or how about eliminating global health illiteracy. Both of these jobs are presently doable, and probably within Google's great imagination.

After Google solves these two approachable, doable problems, then I might consider their immortality app.

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