“Rabbit in the Moon”: Downside of Longevity

We began formulating our plot for our thriller “Rabbit in the Moon” with two “what if” questions: 1) what if someone had discovered a way to increase the normal human lifespan and 2) who would want such a discovery and what might they do to get their hands on it.

When we conceived of this premise, we, like our character Dr. Ni Fu-Cheng assumed that an elixir extending longevity could only be positive for society.  However, as we and Ni-Fu learned, there is a definite downside to a population in which its “elder-share” (i.e. the proportion of people over 65 versus those who are younger) is very high.

The good news is that without our fictional elixir, lifespan in America have increased by an average of 30 years since 1900, so that males born in 2008 can expect to live to 75; females can expect to live to be 81. Centenarians (those over 100) are the fastest growing group in the US, having increased to 96,548 in 2009 from 38,300 in 1990, according to the Census Bureau.

And it’s not just the US that is experiencing increased longevity. People worldwide are living longer. Suddenly, the total number of seniors is expanding faster than the number of youngsters. Although currently the world is evenly divided between those under age 28 and those over 28, by 2050 half of individuals living in developed countries will be seniors over age 60, the other half, children under age 15.

If increased lifespan is the good news, what is the bad news? It is that most societies experiencing this sweeping demographic shift have not made the kinds of economic and policy adjustments required to adapt to this change. That’s especially true for the US.

How for example, do we deal with the cost of promised pensions and health benefits if the number of workers needed to finance these benefits is outnumbered by the seniors they have to support?

One of the consequences of aging is the increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Experts estimate 115 million people worldwide living with this form of dementia by 2050. The cost of their care is soaring- just one of the budget busting negative consequences of increased longevity.

In “Rabbit in the Moon”, Dr. Ni-Fu Cheng worries about this very issue, asking his granddaughter Lili whether his elixir comes with a cost too high. “Even without the issue of overpopulation,” he tells her, “there is the question of the quality of those extra years. I have not found the key to immortality. Cells will still age. They’ll just do so more slowly. And for some individuals- say with Alzheimer’s disease or severe arthritis or terminal cancer-that means more years of suffering.” He also wonders about the loneliness of living without friends or family who have died before them.

Ultimately he decides that the world is not ready for his discovery.

In our real world, some countries like France are already curbing public benefits, raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, in order to maintain national solvency. One million people took to the streets in protest.  In the US, a few candidates running for office have suggested solutions from pension reform, changing the age of eligibility for Social Security age, to getting rid of Social Security altogether. The response from the electorate appears to be negative.

Bottom line: the cost of maintaining aging populations is a looming crisis that is not going away.

Michael W. Hodin, who is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and researches aging issues said in the New York Times recently, that its solution “will require a mass-scale collaborative response akin to the Manhattan Project or the space race.”

So read “Rabbit in the Moon” and let us know what you think.