LEWISTON — “What if we could live for 1,000 years?”

That’s the question that sparked a lively discussion at Thursday’s Great Falls Forum. About 60 attendees heard Bates College philosophy professor David Cummiskey’s lecture titled “Understanding the End of Aging,” and they contributed a wide range of ideas and reactions.

“Natural aging is a part of our existence,” Cummiskey said. He went on to suggest much scientific evidence that many more years can be added to human life on Earth.

“Living is what kills you,” he said.

The aim of modern medicine is to defeat disease, but he pointed out that the cures have become increasingly aggressive and intensive. Cummiskey said nanotechnology is a medical breakthrough that can send attacks directly to the cellular level. If such approaches could greatly reduce death from chronic disease, lifespans of several hundred years “are plausible.”

Just as aviation went from a 12-second flight by the Wright Brothers to a lunar landing in about 60 years, new medical therapies might have the same impact on aging, with many years of survival coming along in a similar continuum.

He said “living causes damage” to the body, and like wear-and-tear on an automobile, “running the machine nonstop for 30 years” leads to a breakdown. Just as oil changes are better than motor rebuilds, preventive medicine extends life as therapies “get rid of the extracellular junk.”

“The essence of regenerative medicine is to cancel the deterioration that results from normal biological function,” Cummiskey said.

From that point, he engaged the audience in a fascinating dialogue that drew out some unexpected viewpoints. What would the consequences be? Would we want to live for hundreds of years?

The audience responses were diverse and imaginative.

“Would there be room for us all?” one attendee wondered.

What about animals? Would extreme longevity include all life forms? How would that happen? What are the social implications? Costs? Equality issues?

There is already a huge discrepancy in worldwide health, Cummiskey noted. He brought up difficulties that come with the concept, such as religion.

He asked the audience to consider if there is “a duty to die.” Is the lifespan we are accustomed to a natural component of “generational cleansing?” he asked.

Cummiskey said he is not advocating that society move toward such longevity.

He congratulated the audience on their thoughtful contributions on the subject, and he pointed out that people involved in such discussions are always amazed that so many related issues emerge.

Summing up the presentation and its implications, Cummiskey said, “If you have 1,000 years, you’ll care more about the future.”

Cummiskey is chair of philosophy at Bates College. He is a medical ethics consultant at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, and he sits on the medical ethics committee at Central Maine Healthcare in Lewiston. He also served on the board of directors for the Maine Bioethics Network, and the Bioethics Advisory Committee for Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Cummiskey’s research and publications discuss contemporary issues in moral and political theory. He is currently working on cross-cultural ethics, focusing in particular on Confucian, Buddhist and Islamic approaches to medical ethics.
He is the author of “Kantian Consequentialism” and is currently writing a book on intercultural bioethics.

His awards include the  Charlotte W. Newcombe Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, a National Endowment for the Humanities research fellowship, and a Bates College Phillips Fellowship.

Cummiskey received his Master of Arts in political science and his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Michigan.

The Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library’s Callahan Hall is a free monthly speaker series featuring statewide and regional leaders in public policy, business, academia and the arts. The Forum is co-sponsored by the Sun Journal, Bates College and the library.

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