Retirement Puzzle - Life in the freezer?

A couple of years ago I was asked to look into ‘Cryonics’ and the possible implications for our annuity business. At the time it was something I knew very little about but having delved into it, I found it was a truly fascinating strand of science. So in this month’s article I thought it would be good to see what developments have occurred since then and how much closer we are in our attempt at immortality... and why even Simon Cowell has signed up for it!

 By Tim Gosden, Head of Annuities, Legal & General

 Cryogenics or Cryonics?

 In the world of Physics, Cryogenics is the science of the production of very low temperatures (below 105C) and how materials behave and react at those temperatures. Commercially this science has many applications including, for example, food preservation, power transmission and rocket fuels. For most of us though the term resonates in the realms of science fiction as a means of freezing ‘legally’ deceased human bodies in the hope they can be revived at some point in the future when medical advances can cure the cause of death. In fact ‘Cryonics’ is the term used to describe the low-temperature preservation of humans and animals and Cryopreservation is the process.

 Cryonics scientists would argue that "legally deceased", when the heart stops beating is not the same as "totally deceased” which is when the brain ceases to function. The aim of Cryonics is to quickly preserve what brain activity remains after ‘legal’ death so that if an individual can be revived in the future there is hope that their personality, memories and identity can be rekindled. The purpose of Cryonics is not to reverse death but instead to preserve life.

 Before I continue further, annuity actuaries can be reassured that Cryonically preserved people are legally deceased and so if they were to be revived at some point in the future there should be no claim on pension payments, based on our current understanding!

 Surely, it is only for the super wealthy?

 Most people would probably place Cryonics in the same basket as space tourism, something only for the very wealthy and celebrities. In the UK, Devon based Unusual Risks and Mortgages provides a service for people who want to plan to be cryonically preserved. However, they stress, perhaps not surprisingly, that currently in the UK there is only a very small community of people that wish to plan for preservation. Their estimate is that the total cost to a UK individual can vary between £60,000 to just over £210,000. This will also vary a depending on whether it is the whole body or just the head and brain that is preserved ‘Neuropreservation’, which is the cheaper option. For customers who want to fund the costs over their lifetime then, depending on age, a relatively cheap, off the shelf whole of life insurance policy with specific trust provisions can be used for this purpose. Membership of a US Cryonics organisation is an additional cost that also needs to be factored in.

 Which country leads in this field?

 US organisations lead in the field of cryonics research and cryonics technology. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation and Cryonics Institute are the two main US non-profits organisations that stand out and both were established as far back as the 1970s. Cryonics Institute currently claims to hold 100 people in Cryonic suspension while Alcor has 118 people and 33 pets! Formed in 2006, KrioRus in Moscow claims to be the first cryonics organisation outside the US but feedback indicates that it is still a relatively new and untested facility. 

 Do Cryonics facilities exist in the UK?

 The UK currently doesn’t have any Cryonic storage facilities. However, Cryonics UK, a non-profit organisation run by volunteers, will, as soon as possible after death, prepare a deceased person’s body for shipping to a chosen storage facility in the US. Tim Gibson of Cryonic UK said the process after death is to very rapidly stabilise biology. This involves the removal of water from cells, which is then replaced with a cryoprotectant (essentially human antifreeze) to avoid damaging ice crystals forming that will destroy cells. Using dry ice the body is then cooled to -130C. This process of cooling and solidification without crystal formation is known as vitrification. Storage in the US is often in a shared container (so there may be companions), that is filled with liquid nitrogen at a temperature of around –196C.

 Will it ever work?

 No one knows because as the moment the technology doesn’t exist for the final stage, which is to revive someone. Not surprisingly, there are many Cryonics critics who claim it’s a rip off pseudoscience with zero chance of revival. Cryonics UK sensibly refers to it as an experiment the people can choose to take part in if they desire, so it’s more of a personal thing. Their view is that science is constantly pushing the boundaries of what is considered "dead" and Cryonics simply pushes that boundary a little further. The Cryonics Institute on the other hand says the chances for successfully achieving revival sometime in the near future are not only excellent, but frankly, inevitable!

 Examples from nature.

 What we do know is that, as usual, nature provides us with some precedents in the form of extremophiles - creatures that can survive some of the most inhospitable conditions on the planet and more. For weeks the arctic wood frog can literally turns itself into a solid ice cube with nearly two thirds of its body water frozen, down to –16 C. Its heart stops, muscle and breathing movements cease and the reason it survives is because of increased levels of its natural cryoprotectants. But that’s nothing compared to the larvae of the Alaskan red flat bark beetle that has been documented as surviving temperatures of -150 C. It does this by dehydrating its internal tissues, which concentrates the natural cryoprotectants to the extent the body water literally vitrifies and turns to a glass like substance.

 So while some might argue that Cryonics is cheating nature, it could also be argued that nature is providing us with clues about how we can apply this science for our own purposes.

 To infinity and beyond!

 Taking it a stage further, if we are destined to travel though inter stellar space in a state of hibernation the perhaps Cryonics science may have a very important role for the living as well as the deceased.
 To end on on a more mundane note, while there are no obvious issues for the insurance industry, perhaps it is worth monitoring developments in the field of Cryonics science.

 At the start of the article I mentioned that Simon Cowell has signed up for Cryopreservation. Apparently, back 2009 at a private dinner with Gordon Brown that stated he intended to be Cryonically preserved and modestly announced “I’d be doing the nation an invaluable service”. Gordon Brown on the other hand retorted “I'm not sure me coming back from the dead would be popular’. ‘In fact, there may be a campaign to stop me being frozen”!

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