What Does Death Look Like in 2069? This Podcast Explores the Future of Dying and Mortality.
A new podcast from Ozy Media in collaboration with Providence St. Joseph Health examines the future of health and healthcare, projecting half a century into the future to imagine health and wellness in 2069. Episode 4 of this series focuses on developments that are changing the future of end-of-life care and how we view and prepare for death. These include guided LSD trips for dying patients, reverse aging and life extension research, and the transhumanist goals of shedding our physical bodies and avoiding death altogether.
One of the recent developments in end-of-life care is the use of psychedelics such as LSD or psilocybin mushrooms to reduce anxiety and help dying people mentally process their experience in a more comfortable way. Although these substances are still highly illegal in the U.S. and consequently difficult to study, research so far has yielded promising results. In the podcast, we hear an interview with a hospice patient who, under the supervision of her doctor, uses LSD to manage her pain and letting her “come to peace with” her approaching death.
Dr. Ira Byock, founder of the Institute for Human Caring at Providence St. Joseph Health and author of Dying Well, has spent his career seeking ways to make death more comfortable. He acknowledges that while death is not something to be desired, it provides a final opportunity for personal growth. He is a proponent of psychedelics as one tool that can help people achieve a more comfortable end of life experience. Byock’s research shows that reframing the experience of death and expectations for the end of life can ease the transition and make palliative care more effective. Patients who use psychedelics have reported increased calm and a reduction in the anxiety and fear associated with approaching death. These effects can not only make the patient more comfortable and happy in their last days, but can also increase the effectiveness of palliative care and reduce costs.
Approaching death is far from the only reason people have used psychedelics for therapeutic purposes. Psilocybin and LSD, particularly in small or “micro” doses, has been used to treat a variety of mental illnesses including depression, addiction, and anxiety. Dr Byock is optimistic that if the positive results continue, psychedelics will soon be made available for legal medical use.
Slowing the aging process
While some anticipate new and different ways to embrace death and mentally prepare for the aging and dying process, others want to slow or stop the aging process altogether. Tristan Edwards, founder of Life Biosciences, predicts a future where humans will have a greatly increased “human health span,” meaning the number of healthy years your body has. His goal is to produce medical technologies that will allow people to live longer, healthier lives, dying only from cell deterioration rather than age-related diseases.
“Rather than getting to seventy and having ten years of decline,” Edwards predicts, “humans can get to a hundred, one-twenty in perfect health.” In this scenario, new medicines will slow aging on a cellular level. The body eventually dies because the cells deteriorate, but rather than dying over a prolonged period of time, the aging and dying process is condensed into a few months rather than decades.
As our understanding of the human genome grows, it’s becoming easier to harness the gene mutations that control aging. “Most of the science community is looking at it all wrong,” Edwards claims. Because they view aging as a natural process and not a disease, regulatory agencies like the FDA and its European counterpart don’t evaluate anti-aging drugs that aren’t treating a specific condition. This, he argues, reduces the incentive for pharmaceutical companies to research and invest in anti-aging drugs, slowing the innovation process. Edwards wants to shift the paradigm for how we view aging, treating it as a disease that we can actively work to eradicate.
While some medical research aims at reducing the signs of aging and the pains of dying, others are setting their sights on achieving literal immortality. Futurists like Thomas Frey see a world where technology helps us avoid death altogether. They point to current advances such as regrowing organs and 3D-printing live tissue as signs of a future where we can regrow whole bodies to replace our aging ones altogether.
In the future, technology may also be used to preserve people’s memories and personalities, opening the way for complete detachment from our physical bodies. Transhumanists believe that, with the right combination of nanotechnology, robotics, and AI, humans will be able to transcend physical death.
A less drastic method of digital preservation uses AI to create a “chatbot” version of a deceased person. In 2016, Eugenia Kuyda created such a bot when a friend died, using thousands of text messages and social media posts to create a responsive bot with her friend’s personality. Other services such as DeadSocial now offer tools for managing your online presence after death, allowing you to customize your digital legacy and ensure access to important information for your loved ones
A prominent critic of transhumanism, author Barbara Ehrenreich recently examined the obsession with anti-aging and life extension in her book Natural Causes. She argues that by treating aging and dying as an “outrage,” we make dying more painful and subject people to unnecessary and invasive medical procedures. To Ehrenreich, like Byock, accepting the reality of biological death and admitting that “we are not the sole authors of our destinies or of anything else” can be a journey of growth.
The popularity of movements aimed at eluding death demonstrates that our death anxiety is as strong as ever. While life-extending technologies may ultimately lead to the defeat of biological death as we know it, for now, a healthy acceptance of death and honest discussion about your end-of-life wishes is the most certain way to ease your death anxiety, appreciate your life, and prepare yourself for death with knowledge, acceptance, and some measure of control.
Article by Connecting Directors contributor Diana Eliza Ionescu