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Is life after 75 worth living? This UPenn scholar doubts it.

What makes a life worth living as you grow older?

  • Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel revisits his essay on wanting to die at 75 years old.
  • The doctor believes that an old life filled with disability and lessened activity isn't worth living.
  • Activists believe his argument stinks of ageism, while advances in biohacking could render his point moot.

A few years ago oncologist and bioethicist Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel wrote a provocative essay in The Atlantic titled "Why I Hope to Die at 75." This picked up a lot of traction as Emanuel was the chair of the University of Pennsylvania's department of medical ethics and health policy, and one of the leading figures in creating Obamacare. Ezekiel is also brother to the former mayor of Chicago, Rahm and Hollywood agent Ari.

Emanuel has declared he will refuse medical interventions, antibiotics, and vaccinations once he turns 75. The crux of his argument is that older Americans are living too long in a disabled and "diminished" state of life. He wants to make his friends and others think about how they want to live as they grow older, as he put it, "I want them to think of an alternative to succumbing to that slow constriction of activities and aspirations imperceptibly imposed by aging."

There are some experts today that are still opposed to this kind of thinking. Ageism activist and writer, Ashton Applewhite, finds a great deal of unsubstantiated claims in Emanuel's argument. Likewise, Emanuel's ideas may also soon become obsolete — biohackers such as Dave Asprey believe we're on course to living up to 180 years old.

Emanuel recently caught up with MIT's Technology Review in an interview where he talked about the social implications of longevity research and why he doesn't support extending life spans.

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel on Aging

While nobody wants to die, Emanuel believes that the alternative, degeneration, is worse: "living too long is also a loss," he states in his original essay. For a great deal of Americans these kinds of disabilities and loss of health severely limits what they can do and accomplish.

There are few different sets of arguments strewn throughout this essay. One of those being that there are not that many people who'll continue to be "active and engaged" in their lives. While Emanuel points out that there are outliers who stay physically fit and healthy into their nineties, they're just that — outliers, for which he believes the majority of people are not. That is one measure Emanuel determines on whether a life is worth living or not.

Right around the time this essay was originally written, Ashton Applewhite countered this type of thinking by calling out the problematic nature of the argument:

"It is regrettably American to value doing over being, an ethos that Ezekiel Emanuel epitomizes and that serves us poorly in late life. No wonder he views the prospect with such dread and contempt."

This opens up the question as to whether being mentally stimulated is also enough to warrant wanting to live longer. It's not hard to imagine a person calm and aged serenely content to be, rather than living in some kind of action-packed lifestyle.

Emanuel continues on by regarding aging as something that, ". . . transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic."

He also counters the cultural idea of what he calls "the American immortal." That is, the amount of time and energy people spend obsessing about exercise, diets, and longevity plans to live as long as possible. Emanuel says,

"I reject this aspiration. I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive. For many reasons, 75 is a pretty good age to aim to stop."

The doctor doesn't intend on ending his life actively at 75, but he won't be trying to prolong it either.

When asked what's wrong with simply enjoying an extended life, Emanuel replied in a somewhat flippant manner:

"These people who live a vigorous life to 70, 80, 90 years of age — when I look at what those people 'do,' almost all of it is what I classify as play. It's not meaningful work. They're riding motorcycles; they're hiking. Which can all have value — don't get me wrong. But if it's the main thing in your life? Ummm, that's not probably a meaningful life."

He also suggested that our obsession with longevity is driving away attention from the health and well-being of children. "One of the statistics I like to point out is if you look at the federal budget, $7 goes to people over 65 for every dollar for people under 18," he says.

Applewhite takes issue with this statement here (video located below).

Problematic argument with an ageist strain

The author and activist opposed Emanuel's original article when it came out and believes that the idea remains problematic. Regarding his point that more federal dollars go to older people than to children she stated in an email that:

"… [The idea] is classic, misguided zero-sum thinking of the sort that needlessly pits the generations against each other. There is plenty to go around if resources are more equitably. The old do not profit at the expense of the young."

Most importantly, it is not legal — or ethical—to allocate resources by race or by sex. Doing so by age is equally unacceptable. Period.

She also takes issue with the idea that our older years are not of high quality to some categorical degree due to disability brought on by age — be it mental or physical. Applewhite points to the large amount of people living fine and fulfilled lives who have disabilities.

Yet, she does concede that quality of life is subjective. As does Emmanuel, while he disagrees with the sentiment he still supports the choice of people wanting to live as long as possible.

Biohacking our way to a healthy immortality?

There are a whole host of radical ideas that seek to improve the human condition. Whether it's Aubrey De Grey's ideas to live to over 1,000 years old or the work that biohacker Dave Asprey has funded and started.

While the science still isn't settled, we can't discount the idea that we'll one day live even healthier and more robust lives in our twilight years.

Dr. Emmanuel's ideas may become irrelevant if we succeed in this quixotic and eternal dream.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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