Better Living (Hopefully) through Cryonics

Scientists almost universally agree that within twenty years (fifty at the outside) normal adults could expect to live to 100 and even higher with no serious health concerns. Every year, little by little, technology is conquering disease, aging…and perhaps even death itself.

But what can the rest of us do who are either too old or perhaps too ill to wait for doctors to learn how to fix us?  

Cool it, that’s what.

Nearly everyone has heard of the idea of being frozen immediately after death, to be awakened when the technology is available to cure whatever it was that killed you in the first place. We know that folks who drown in freezing water can be revived after many minutes—sometimes hours! The big problem is that the normal freezing process is destructive to living tissue—ice crystals expand and irreversibly destroy cell structures.  

So, the first trick is to find a way to freeze a person very soon after death in such a way that cells remain intact. The second trick (and this is the biggee) is learning how to revive a person after they’ve been cryonically frozen.

But the challenges don’t end there. Even if the technical problems of freezing and reanimation are resolved, there are financial, logistical, social, and even religious issues which must be considered, both by the person who decides to be frozen, and the company who agrees to provide the service.

Alcor Life Extension Foundation (, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, is working to solve all these problems. For nearly thirty years, they’ve given hope to hundreds of people and their loved ones that someday they might awaken to a new life. Alcor has spent an immense amount of effort to address comprehensively all the issues which might arise in preserving those who have died and who may be revivable.

The first step, of course, is financing. A surprisingly modest $150,000 life insurance policy will provide the funds to have you stored in perpetuity (roughly two-thirds of the money goes into a “Patient Trust Fund” which is managed by a Board of Directors). For much less, you can choose to have only your brain preserved; in fact, the majority of “cryopatients” choose this option!

Okay, so now you’ve gotten that life insurance policy and signed on with Alcor. How can you be sure that they can get to you in time once you die (since the window of opportunity to begin preservation is very slim)? Alcor customers are given a bracelet which identifies them as “patients.” The greatest risk to patients is in unexpected accidental deaths (where emergency response is not readily available). If you are terminally ill, however, you have ample opportunity to notify them of your impending demise. Once you die, Alcor has Standby teams stationed throughout the US who can respond immediately to begin preparing your body for storage.

Their first step is to simply lower your body temperature to slow certain natural biological processes which cause cells to degrade. Your body is transported to a surgical facility where your blood is replaced with a special solution (similar to that used in transporting organs for transplant). This process further cools your body to about 5 degrees Centigrade (5°C). Your body then undergoes a “washout” process which ensures that as much blood as possible is replaced, and that your core body temperature is stabilized at 5°C.

The next phase, called cryoprotection, is performed at the company’s Scottsdale facility. Since the water in your body is the greatest danger to you (due to ice crystal formation), as much of it as possible needs to be replaced with a glycerol solution. This process takes several hours, using the patient’s own circulatory system to distribute the solution.

At this point you’re ready for storage. Your cryoprotected corpse is placed in a capsule cooled by liquid nitrogen (LN2). By the end of the “Cooldown” phase, your body is at a brisk -320 degrees Fahrenheit.  One advantage of LN2 storage is that it requires no electrical power to maintain, so the integrity of stored patients is independent of power outages. The main LN2 supply needs to be replenished periodically, of course. And after nearly three decades of operation, Alcor has yet to lose a patient due to accidental thaw.

What now? Well… you wait. Until technology catches up. Even if a body could be perfectly preserved (despite the painstaking efforts of the Alcor team) some damage due to water ice will occur, plus some fracturing of body tissues can occur during the LN2 Cooldown process). Alcor says that nanotechnology will eventually be developed (whereby microscopic machines can repair your damaged cells at the molecular level); plus, genetic and cloning techniques will be available to grow replacement organs (perhaps even a replacement body!).

If you’re worried that all this is just a high-tech scam, keep in mind that President Fred Chamberlain’s own father is the company’s first patient. They even have another patient, frozen in 1967, who was turned over to their care in 1991! Employees of Alcor are required to be members of the patient program, and several even have family members preserved there! 

Assuming all the technical issues can ultimately be worked out, consider the social implications. If opting for cryostorage becomes commonplace, more and more people (even folks who are young and healthy) could be living their lives wearing the ID bracelet which will (hopefully) get them immediately into the custody of the Standby team. Would young, healthy people readily take this option? How would their loved ones and associates react? What would be the religious implications to, say, a minister who chose the option?

There are consequences to success as well. Suppose you awaken, astonished to find yourself alive and healthy, 100 years in the future! What then? Alcor themselves liken your situation to a “third world immigrant” of today arriving in America. Your skills and education would almost certainly be obsolete, and you’d have no friends or family (unless you call potential great-great-grandchildren family) for support. Presumably Alcor’s responsibility to you would end the day you were well enough to leave a hospital (we asked Alcor for clarification on some of these issues, but received no response). Nonetheless, you could count yourself lucky to be alive (again), and ready to embark upon a journey, albeit a difficult one, unparalleled in human experience!  Would you take the gamble?

[Originally posted in April 2000 at]

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