Common Misconceptions about Life Extension and Longevity

By A. S. Deller | 5 April 2022
Medium

(Credit: Dreamstime.com)

As we progress into a future where science unlocks keys to living longer and healthier lives, we also need to be wary of the fears and misunderstandings many people have regarding the technology behind these advances.

As evangelists of life extension and longevity tech, we need to do our best to help spread knowledge that can assuage these fears while encouraging others to continue seeking out new research.

Several of the most commonly-mentioned of these misconceptions, and some supported arguments against them, include:

— Financial instability

— Decreased physical mobility

— Loss of friends and family

— Caregiving needs

— Community disengagement

— Lifestyle degradation

— Medical care cost increases

— Loss of life purpose

— Brain health degradation

— Mental health and apprehension of end-of-life

Most of the preceding negatives that affect older adults are inevitable and unavoidable to a large degree. No matter how diligent someone is in their approach to health and wellness, physical detriments and psychological effects will build up as age advances.

Larger aging populations would not only mean more people experiencing all of those factors, but also the possible introduction of new negative factors into the mix:

  • Political conflict is driven by conservative and religious concern over changes in traditional family units
  • The shrinking of the number of working-age adults, known as the increase in the dependency ratio (more retired adults relying on fewer working adults).
  • Shifts in the economy’s make-up: Business verticals that thrive on older adults become key economic drivers while those who rely on younger populations become depressed.
  • Further increases in healthcare costs, driven by both the increased dependency ratio and economic changes.
  • Overpopulation might become an even greater concern as third-world nations continue to experience high birth rates while developed nations experience much lower mortality rates.
  • Growing inequality between rich and poor: The rich would be able to continue growing fortunes and hoarding wealth for centuries as opposed to mere decades.

But this is where the true goals of human longevity research are often confused with what many people believe. The push for life extension is not just about finding treatments and therapies that will make humans live longer. Arguably the most important aspect of this work is to give people more years that are free from the ravages of aging. This concept has come to be known as “healthspan”, and coexists with “lifespan” as the two sides of the longevity coin.

The ultimate realization of human longevity will only be complete when both lifespan and health span are increased substantially. Simply raising the average lifespan of people to hit 100 (or higher) will not do. Longevity researchers want to make sure additional years of life are enjoyable, productive years in which people can continue to do whatever drives them and gives them fulfillment and happiness.

In essence, the threshold between middle age and old age will be raised. People will gain decades of active years during which they will continue to work, spend money, and drive the economy. This new generation — the first with radically enhanced health span and lifespan — might actually usher in a new age of prosperity that has never before been experienced. Imagine the results if the likes of Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin, Stephen Hawking, Mary Somerville, Michelangelo, Nikola Tesla, and Isaac Newton could each live the equivalent productive years of two modern lifetimes!

The vast majority of longevity researchers realize that increased lifespans will only be a boon to society if those extra years are healthy ones. Based on recent discoveries over the past few decades, and the advances in a biotech tool such as CRISPR, many believe it is only a matter of time before significant boosts in longevity become a new norm.

Only the very wealthiest people will be able to afford longevity tech

Many of us live longer and healthier lives than ever before, thanks to modern medicine like vaccines, pharmaceuticals that treat conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, and research that helps us understand what nutrition is best for our bodies.

But the “many” isn’t “all.” There are still distinct divides between average lifespans of people living in developed nations vs. third-world nations and between peoples of various classes within those same nations. The poorest among us tend to have life spans nearly 25% shorter than the most well-off.

There is significant research showing that happy retirements often include less “retiring” and more working. In other words, after several years of travel, reading, and leisure, many people find themselves somewhat bored and end up turning a hobby into a money-making side gig or even starting a new late-life career.

Currently, nearly half of all Americans rely on Social Security for the majority of their retirement expenses. Extending life spans to an average of 110, 100, or even 90 years will strain this system beyond its breaking point and necessitate a total preconception of what retirement — not to mention of what old age itself — means.

Yet another factor at play in the United States economy is healthcare. As a direct consequence of the insurance industry, medical care and pharmaceutical costs for people who require the most healthcare are older Americans that are subsidized by millions of younger insurance customers, who don’t use as much. A study on the results of special insurance premium affordability standards showed a direct correlation between the cost of insurance vs. the cost of healthcare services.

Controlling healthcare costs is one way to help ensure people have better access to it but is only a part of the solution that must also include government subsidization of healthcare for the poorest people.

There are a few longevity “wonder drugs” that are already available, which are affordable for most people. For example, Metformin, glucosamine, and resveratrol can be bought for less than USD $20 for a month’s supply. Moreover, aspirin has been shown to increase life expectancy in lab mice and is available for even less!

While common drugs and other compounds with some positive effects are readily available, new and expensive longevity treatments such as gene therapies are still out of reach for all but the wealthiest. However, three factors will act to bring the cost of even the most complex treatment regimens.

The first is the power of federal regulatory recognition. Currently, the FDA does not consider aging as a disease, much to the chagrin of many Biogerontologists. However, when the FDA does change its stance — and it could be sooner than later — health insurance would begin covering many longevity treatments.

Second is the power of Moore’s Law, in which Gordon Moore originally stated that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every couple of years, with the cost being halved. Moore’s Law has proven to be somewhat accurate regarding nearly all technological development, and biotech is no exception. The cost of gene sequencing is far less today than five, ten, or even twenty years ago.

Finally, another law compounds the effects of the two previous factors: the law of supply and demand. Currently, there are few people who know much about current effective longevity treatments and there are also few sources of such therapies, therefore the cost is high. However, when billions of people learn about new ways to remain younger and healthier for longer the demand will skyrocket, and the supply of longevity tech will need to increase rapidly to satisfy the demand. More supply will drive down prices, but with almost every adult on the planet as a potential customer, the drop in prices will be more than made up with volume!

Longer lifespans will lead to vast overpopulation

The estimates of how many human beings the Earth can support vary wildly, depending on the source. Some people believe the number has already been surpassed, while many think that the number is closer to 10 billion based on currently available resources. There is even research to suggest that our planet might support a population reaching 25 billion.

Those numbers by themselves are truly staggering and, to many, very problematic. Climate change’s environmental changes transform Earth in numerous ways, from threatening coastlines with rising sea levels to encouraging the expansion of deserts. We continue to deforest in the name of commerce. While in many cases, this is to create new farmland for crops and pasture for grazing cattle — and thus helping to feed our growing population and appetites — we are ultimately destabilizing and weakening the biomes that evolved over hundreds of millions of years. By creating so much new grassland, we reduce oxygenation and biodiversity in ways that could have many domino effects on our environment.

Based on current data, the world’s population might level off at between 10 to 12 billion people by the end of the 21st century. There are several possible reasons for this:

There is a concept known as “carrying capacity,” which is a tipping point at which population growth is curtailed by mortality. As more people are born, resources dwindle, leaving many wanting more, which leads to a higher incidence of starvation and not enough medical care to go around.

And we have seen over the past hundred years another phenomenon that drives population steadying. As the general living conditions and resource availability increases in a country, people tend to have fewer children. This phenomenon happened in the United States and many other developed nations, and we can see it beginning to occur in more urban areas of China and India.

But as we move forward into the future, the longevity technology that is just now gaining steam will have an equally powerful impact. According to a report by the Census Bureau, funded by the NIH:

“The global population of the “oldest old” — people aged 80 and older — is expected to more than triple between 2015 and 2050, growing from 126.5 million to 446.6 million. The oldest-old population in some Asian and Latin American countries is predicted to quadruple by 2050.”

Indeed, the longevity industry is poised to grow massively as not only the world population grows but so, too, raises the ratio of old to young. The list of longevity technologies is impressive:

Senolytics: Drugs that target and destroy old zombie cells to lessen their burden on the body.

Stem cell therapeutics: Treatments that use stem cells to rejuvenate age-damaged cells of nearly any body tissue.

Rapalogues: Drugs that slow cell growth.

Organ regeneration: 3D printing living tissues (bioprinting) to build organs.

Metformin: A diabetes drug that reduces inflammation and oxidation stress.

Caloric restriction research: Studies have shown that limiting caloric intake slows aging-related metabolic processes.

There is little doubt that more people will live longer than ever before in human history. The technologies mentioned above, and many others that have yet to be discovered, will contribute to a world population of 10 billion by 2050 but won’t be the cause. The developed countries with the higher proportion of aged people will also be the countries where birth rates will be lowest, while countries where more advanced medical technology lags will have higher birth rates.

In effect, the more we focus on longevity, the fewer children we will have because of increased healthspan benefits, which is the amount of time someone can remain active physically and mentally before the ravages of old age lower one’s quality of life.

By 2050, it is not beyond the possibility that our current conception of middle age (45–55) is instead 65–75 for people with access to the most modern longevity treatments.

We will still need to solve several gaps to be able to take care of our 2050 population:

“A 56 percent food gap between crop calories produced in 2010 and those needed in 2050 under “business as usual” growth; A 593 million-hectare land gap (an area nearly twice the size of India) between the global agricultural land area in 2010 and expected agricultural expansion by 2050; and An 11-gigaton GHG mitigation gap between expected agricultural emissions in 2050 and the target level needed to hold global warming below 2oC (3.6°F), the level necessary for preventing the worst climate impacts.”

By 2050, there may be 10 billion people on Earth, but there could also be one million people on Mars. Every one of them will deserve the best life that longevity technology can offer them.

Longevity technologists want to make everyone immortal

The lives of our ancestors 1000 years past were starkly different from ours today. If you were not a landowner, you worked very hard: plowing fields, sowing crops and harvesting them; hunting and gathering; mining and smithing, fighting in wars. The toll of daily life for 99.9% of humanity was a burden that saw most people worn to the point of debilitation by age 40. Without science and advanced medicine, age-related diseases quickly saw most people to the grave by the age of 60.

Similarly, modern life expectancy for people in the developed world has increased since the beginning of the 20th century. A revolution in medical and nutritional science and technology has contributed to the life expectancy boom averaging nearly 40 years since the late 19th century. Indeed, an average United States citizen’s life expectancy increased from about 39 years in 1880 to almost 79 years as of 2019.

Despite such vast improvement in much of the world, huge populations still live in health-poor conditions where life expectancies are surprisingly low. A dozen countries, primarily in Africa, have life expectancy below 60 years. The next forty countries moving up the life expectancy ladder is between 60–70 years and includes the majority of African nations and roughly half of Asia.

However, life expectancy is an average number largely skewed by infant and maternal mortality. Modern obstetrics, when practiced rigorously, has allowed many more mothers and babies to survive the days following birth enabling life expectancies to rise dramatically.

Moreover, the next giant leap forward to boost human lifespans must overcome another significant hurdle; age-related diseases. Most people tend toward a lifestyle change between the ages of 60–70 — the age of retirement for many — where they become more sedentary. This lack of activity leads to quick increases in BMI, bad cholesterol, decreases in bone density and lung capacity, and a host of other issues. These changes increase the odds of getting strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, and a host of other medical problems. This period is just an accelerated cascade of the aging processes that many people begin to feel as early as their thirties.

These processes have been categorized and studied in recent years and are known as the hallmarks of aging:

Genomic instability: DNA damage over time that is not repaired.

Telomere attrition: The shortening of the protective “caps” on our chromosomes.

Epigenetic alterations: Changes in gene expression over time in response to our environment that are cause our cells to malfunction.

Proteostasis loss: Deterioration of our ability to create and process proteins.

Deregulated nutrient sensing: The loss of our cells’ ability to efficiently metabolize food.

Mitochondrial dysfunction: The inability of our cells to produce energy.

Cellular senescence: Dead cells that stick around and create damage to other cells.

Stem cell exhaustion: A decrease in stem cells over time, making repair and regrowth difficult.

Altered intercellular communication: The decline in the ability of our cells to communicate with each other.

Combating these processes was once a dream, but no more!

“Extending the functional lifespan of humans by just one year will decrease suffering for tens of millions of people and will improve the quality of life for billions of people.”

Margaretta Colangelo, AI Precision Health Insititute

Renewing the human body can take numerous forms and would likely be a combination of replacement parts and gene therapy. Lab-grown organs, such as fallopian tubes via 3D printing (“bioprinting”), will probably make transplanted organs and limbs seem antique by the middle of this century.

However, replacing broken parts is not where we do battle with the hallmarks of aging. Stem cell infusion therapy is proving quite promising, as detailed in the results of a study published in April 2017 in The Journals of Gerontology. Fifteen frail patients between the ages of 60 and 95 each received stem cell transfusions from donors between the ages of 20–45, and six months later, all patients were healthier. In January of 2021, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences published a paper successfully showing an increase in lifespan by 25% in lab mice through CRISPR-Cas9, a gene-editing tool, by inactivating kat7, a gene involved with cellular senescence.

Even when we delay all the hallmarks of aging, repair and replace body parts, or upload our consciousness into an android or a body that never ages, death will always be possible. The possibility of death makes immortality impossible.

Forget immortality, and let’s focus on what’s possible. We can increase both lifespan and healthspan, which is how long we live and how well we live, body, and mind. Increasing human longevity may not grant us godlike immortality, but it will improve everyone’s life and healthspans.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

A. S. Deller is a Sci fi, Fantasy and Science writer. Follow him at Medium and Twitter.

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