By Bertalan Mesko, PhD | 9 June 2018
The Medical Futurist
Life expectancy is continuously growing but how far could it be stretched? Could you imagine that the average person lived beyond 130 years of age? How would longevity transform societies and our ways of life?
Based on the book, My Health: Upgraded.
The quest for immortality
Humanity has been yearning for the secret of immortality since the first temple for the ever-living Gods was built, which might have been 12,000 years ago in Gobekli Tepe, according to the current state of archeology. The ancient legends and myths are full of tales about how men on Earth wanted to join the community of immortals. However, sometimes those who gained access to the privileged and reached the status of the Gods paid a very high price. According to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, when Zeus was asked to grant prince Tithonus eternal life, the god consented. Nonetheless, there was no request for eternal youth, so for thousands of years, Tithonus grew old and withered.
The suffering of immortality often appears in the literary imagination, too. Simone de Beauvoir’s hauntingly beautiful novel, All Men Are Mortal, tells the tale of a 13th-century Italian man, Fosca, who recounts his life – and his immortality – to an actress in the 19th century. He says how at first he wanted power, then money, finally family and love. However, an immortal being must find that everything decays around him, eventually, so nothing has meaning and nothing has any risk anymore. As human beings are finite in their lives, in their imagination and their thinking, infinity is unimaginable and inhuman. As Ecclesiastes writes, “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die…”
Longevity instead of immortality
Still, after thousands of years without any success, after the relentless and fruitless search for the Holy Grail by Christians, the appeal of immortality did not vanish, it only lessened. Just look at all those who turn to the cryopreservation of the human body – to be able to wake up healthily from death after centuries. Michigan professor, Robert Ettinger proposed cryonics in a book called The Prospect of Immortality, which argued that death could, in fact, be a reversible process. Ettinger, who died in 2011, went on to found the Cryonics Institute in Michigan where he, his mother and his first and second wives all now reside in metal flasks kept at −196 °C.
However, there are many more who believe that instead of immortality, humanity has to look at longevity and the chances to keep people healthy and alive for as long as possible. With the drastic increase in life expectancy in the last centuries, the idea of longevity seems to be as close as never before. Silicon Valley clearly has a quest for that now. The U.S. National Academy launched a Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity, which will award at least twenty-five million dollars for breakthroughs in the field. The Parliaments and Civil Society in Technology Assessment (PACITA) is a project of the European Union bringing together stakeholders of healthcare in hopes to design policy, gather technological solutions, and promote awareness of assisting an aging society.
Do you think it’s impossible to live beyond a hundred years healthily? It might be for now, but what do you think a knight from the middle ages would have responded to the question whether he believes it is going to be possible to live until 70 years of age without any trouble in the 20th century?
How long shall we live?
Let us take the example of a 50-year-old male, Ted. He would be considered a Methuselah in ancient Greece or Rome, where the average life expectancy was 30 years. The same would go for Ted if he had fought in the Hundred Year’s War against the French or if he had sailed with Columbus for the New World on the Santa Maria. Before the 19th century, people died much younger than today. Eternal love for your wife meant 10-20 years, maximum. However, since 1840, life expectancy at birth has risen about three months per year. Thus, every year a newborn lives three months longer than those born the previous year. Sweden, which keeps excellent demographic records, documents female life expectancy at 45 years of age in 1840 and 83 today.
Of course, there are huge differences between regions: if you are born in Morocco, you can expect a completely different life-span as in Canada. The two extremes are Sierra Leone and Japan: life expectancy is 50.1 years in the former and 83.7 in the latter. However, experts believe that with recent breakthroughs in science and medicine coupled with lifestyle changes, this number could reach far beyond 100 years.
Although it is not obvious that people want to live longer. The Pew Research Center surveyed thousands of Americans in 2013. A third of them didn’t want to live past the age of 80, and 56 percent of adults said they would not want to live at least 120 years, which is considered the current upper limit of the human lifespan. Only a small minority of 8 percent wanted to live for more than a hundred years. And why don’t people want to live longer?
Are societies crumbling as we live longer?
As the horrific tale of Tithonus shows, already the ancient Greeks knew that immortality has no value without health and well-being. What does it matter how old you are if you cannot use your body and brain to live a full life? Aging is generally associated with deteriorating health and decrepitude. That’s the primary reason why people wouldn’t want to live longer. Ideally, this should improve before life expectancy.
When you think about it, the life of men and women lengthened so quickly in only a few decades that society hasn’t been able to adjust. We can see that when looking at overstrained pension schemes, economic distribution problems – but also deeper-rooted social structures and social values. Even the idea of marriage and other social bonds might be in crisis because these constructions are slower to change than our life expectancy. Why wouldn’t they be? For example, people were told to live a married life and be faithful as long as they shall live for centuries. But how shall we do that if in the 19th century that was 30 years at best and now it might even mean 60?
How could we extend our lifespan beyond 100 years of age if the effects of an aging population already strain our societies? If younger generations cannot sustain the social system to provide care for their elders as they are growing older and older, significant structural changes will be necessary. Transhumanist Zoltan Istvan agreed that if we live past 130 years, society will fundamentally change. We will have to contend with social welfare and retirement systems that cannot sustain themselves.
Could brain implants and exoskeletons come to the rescue?
Coping with increasing life expectancy is a long-term task, and it starts with re-structuring societies so that they fundamentally reflect recent changes. Young, as well as older workers, will have to deal with the fact that people will retire increasingly later. Healthcare systems should prepare for the fact that health problems will quadruple in the coming years due to larger numbers of the elderly. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), two billion people will be over the age of 60 by 2050.
However, the ultimate aim should be to sustain the quality of life during those long years instead of spending it bedridden in hospitals or home cares. Paying more attention to living a healthy life and the use of technologies could offer a helping hand.
Although we have no idea where exponential technological development might take us in the next 50 or 100 years, trends show amazing possibilities for enhancing the human body and brain for keeping them fit. Special brain implants could improve our memory. Exoskeletons could boost our strength, and augment a whole range of our human capabilities. Older people could carry out heavy lifting tasks and other cumbersome assignments by increasing their physical abilities with these complex robotic structures. Scientists are experimenting with various brain implants that might help restore hearing for the deaf and restore sight for some blind people. Imagine how these innovations could aid older people in the future to keep their capabilities.
Moreover, the options of gene-editing or organ transplants should also be mentioned. What if scientists found a way to modify healthy adults’ genes to slow down aging? A group of researchers already identified a potential gene for it. And what if we could grow synthetic organs in laboratories to replace “worn-out” ones? Organovo successfully bioprinted liver tissues already in 2014. The company suggests that within a decade, we will be able to print solid organs such as liver, heart, and kidney. The bioprinted liver tissue could make it to the FDA in 2019. What if ectogenesis – growing babies outside the womb – would become reality alongside with the possibility for uploading individual minds to computers or the voluntary elimination of genders. There are already experiments for saving premature babies in artificial wombs…
Technologies for the aging society
While some of the above options are currently rather concepts in science-fiction movies, such as Black Mirror’s San Junipero episode, new technologies are already available to help older adults live fuller and more independent lives among their younger cohorts. That’s exactly what digital solutions should do: not push them to society’s periphery but keep them connected to the center.
Some health technologies help preserve physical fitness, such as RespondWell, which is using a Kinect sensor to help understand a person’s physical limitations and connect them with a therapist who can then create an individualized physical fitness plan. Some others help recover lost abilities: TV Ears lets people with hearing loss listen to the television clearly without turning up the volume. The Wright Stuff offers a range of products that make dressing up easier for anyone who cannot use one of their hands. The Liftware stabilizing handle, a smart utensil supports motion and enables the hand to shake 70 percent less making eating enjoyable again. There are many more similar innovations on the market and in the future, there will be even more digital solutions with the goal to sustain the quality of life for longer lifespans. That will be the key motivator in our aging societies.
The Medical Futurist believes in the saying that the first person to live beyond 150 has already been born. If it is true, we might be the new generation of supercentenarians. Naturally, that comes with responsibilities and consequences. We might have the burden on our shoulders to transform entire societies to prepare for the super-long way of life. While technology offers plenty of help, it depends entirely on us how we utilize its powers and how we guide our communities towards longevity. Anyhow, we hope we will live long and prosper.
Read more exciting stories in my book, My Health: Upgraded!
David Sinclair – Slowing down Aging
Ray Kurzweil – Ending Aging
Peter Diamandis – Human Longevity and The Future
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