About seven years ago, I reported regularly on the science of longevity, and the prospect of human life extension, for a site called Sage Crossroads. And then I stopped—pretty much dropping the topic for a while and going on to other things.
So when I attended the Techonomy session yesterday entitled "The Longevity Dividend,” it was a perfect chance to hear just how far scientists think their field has come since I last reported on it closely. And I have to say, I was struck by the difference in tone.
Seven years ago, scientists who study aging—so-called biogerontologists—already thought it was possible or even likely that at some point in the future, we would find a way to retard its rate in humans. After all, there were already numerous studies showing that genetic interventions could lengthen the lifespan of other species, particularly mice and roundworms. And caloric restriction—reducing dietary intake by about 1/3—had also been shown to extend lifespan in a number of animal species. (That’s why some humans themselves are already trying it.)
So there were reasons to think that human life extension was coming—and more specifically, that a means of slowing the rate of human aging would be possible. But most mainstream scientists weren’t so bullish then. So optimistic. In particular, they were very worried about giving false hope, and encouraging anti-aging quackery.
I detected a different tone yesterday. S. Jay Olshansky, an aging expert at the University of Chicago, put it plainly. He thinks we can get an average 7 year extension of the human life span by finding a pill that tweaks the right gene pathway—perhaps mimicking the special genetics of those among us who are (or are fated to become) centenarians. “I’m suggesting, and we are suggesting, that the time has arrived for us to go after the biggest prize of all,” said Olshansky. “Let’s alter our own biology. Let’s alter humanity.”
Olshansky doesn’t just think we’re going to get that 7 year pill. He also thinks it's going to extend healthy life, rather than simply prolonging us while we’re hit by a flurry of debilitating illnesses. The technical term is “compression of morbidity”: The period of life beset by disease-related suffering and impairment would be compressed, and essentially come right at the end. You live long, you prosper--and then you die fairly quickly.
Of course, the prospect of extending healthy human life by just 7 years on average (the current life expectancy for women is 80 and men is 75) would have dramatic consequences. The retirement age would have to change, or else you could forget about Social Security. And would people then explicitly set out to have multiple careers? Would marriage contracts have an end date, so that people could go on to another one?
These are just a few of the possible consequences of life extension raised in conversations here at Techonomy. If we go into the world Olshanksy is predicting, it won’t be the last you hear of these questions--and they barely scratch the surface of possible changes to the rhythm of our lives.