An elderly man named Bill sits in a lonely Nevada nursing home, staring out the window. The sun is fading from the sky, and night will soon cover the surrounding windswept desert. Bill has late-onset Alzheimer's disease, and the plethora of medications he's on is losing the war to keep his mind intact. Soon, he will lose control of many of his cognitive functions, will forget many of his memories, and will no longer recognize friends and family.
Approximately 40 million people around the world have some form of dementia, according to a World Health Organization report. About 70 percent of those suffer from Alzheimer's. With average lifespans increasing due to rapidly improving longevity science, what are people with these maladies to do? Do those with severe cases want to be kept alive for years or even decades in a debilitated mental state just because modern medicine can do it?
In parts of Europe and a few states in America where assisted suicide--sometimes referred to as euthanasia or physician aid in dying--is allowed, some mental illness sufferers decide to end their lives while they're still cognitively sound and can recognize their memories and personality. However, most people around the world with dementia are forced to watch their minds deteriorate. Families and caretakers of dementia patients are often dramatically affected too. Watching a loved one slowly loose their cognitive functions and memories is one of the most challenging and painful predicaments anyone can ever go through. Exorbitant finances further complicate the matter because it's expensive to provide proper care for the mentally ill.
In the 21st Century--the age of transhumanism and brilliant scientific achievement--the question should be asked: Are there other ways to approach this sensitive issue?
The transhumanist field of cryonics--using ultra-cold temperatures to preserve a dead body in hopes of future revival--has come a long way since the first person was frozen in 1967. Various organizations and companies around the world have since preserved a few hundred people. Over a thousand people are signed up to be frozen in the future, and many millions of people are aware of the procedure.
Some may say cryonics is crackpot science. However, those accusations are unfounded. Already, human beings can be revived and go on to live normal lives after being frozen in water for over an hour. Additionally, suspended animation is now occurring in a university hospital in Pittsburgh, where a saline-cooling solution has recently been approved by the FDA to preserve the clinically dead for hours before resuscitating them. In a decade's time, this procedure may be used to keep people suspended for a week or a month before waking them. Clearly, the medical field of preserving the dead for possible future life is quickly improving every year.
The trick with cryonics is preserving someone immediately after they've died. Otherwise, critical organs, especially the brain and its billions of neurons, have a far higher chance of being damaged in the freezing. However, it's almost impossible to cryonically freeze someone right after death. Circumstances usually get in the way of an ideal suspension. Bodies must first be brought to a cryonics facility. Most municipalities require technicians, doctors, and a funeral director to legally sign off on a body before it can be cryonically preserved. All this takes time, and minutes are precious once the last heartbeat and breath of air have been made by a cryonics candidate.
Recently, some transhumanists have advocated for cryothanasia, where a patient undergoes physician or self-administered euthanasia with the intent of being cryonically suspended during the death process or immediately afterward. This creates the optimum environment since all persons involved are on hand and ready to do their part so that an ideal freeze can occur.
Cryothanasia could be utilized for a number of people and situations: the atheist Alzheimer's sufferer who doesn't believe in an afterlife and wants science to give him another chance in the future; the suicidal schizophrenic who doesn't want to exist in the current world, but isn't ready to give up altogether on existence; the terminally ill transhumanist cancer patient who doesn't want to lose half their body weight and undergo painful chemotherapy before being cryonically frozen; or the extreme special needs or disabled person who wants to come back in an age where their disabilities can be fixed.
There might even be spiritual, religious, or philosophical reasons for pursuing an impermanent death, as in my novel The Transhumanist Wager, where protagonist Jethro Knights undergoes cryothanasia in search of a lost loved one.
There are many sound reasons why someone might choose cryothanasia. Whoever the person and whatever the reason, there is a belief that life can be better for them in some future time. Some experts believe we will begin reanimating cryonically frozen patients in 25 to 50 years. Technologies via bioengineering, nanomedicine, and mind uploading will likely lead the way. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on developing these technologies that will also create breakthroughs for the field of cryonics and other areas of suspended animation.
Another advantage about cryonics and cryothanasia is their affordability. It costs about $1,000 to painlessly euthanize oneself and an average of $80,000 to cryonically freeze one's body. It costs many times more than that to keep someone alive who is suffering from a serious mental disorder and needs constant 24-hour a day care over many years.
Despite some of the positive possibilities, cryothanasia is virtually unknown to people and is often technically illegal in many places around the world. Of course, much discussion would have to take place in private, public, and political circles in order to determine if cryothanasia has a valid place in society. Nevertheless, cryothanasia represents an original way for dementia sufferers and others to consider now that they are living far longer than ever before.