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As hard as it is to believe, just 150 years ago the average lifespan was 40 years. Yes, what we’d consider mid-life today was a full innings for our great-great-grandparents.
Beyond improvements in nutrition, cleaner drinking water and safer work environments; antibiotics, sterilisation, and vaccines have ushered in a new age of health and longevity over the last century.
With that in mind, what is the future for human life expectancy? While immortality may be a long way off, the smartest minds in science and medicine are predicting that anyone born after 1970 could live well past 120 years of age.
While health experts are helping lead the charge to increase longevity, it is the titans of the tech world who are perhaps making the largest investments and biggest bets on assuring future life expectancy is greater than it is now.
Larry Ellison, the founding chief executive of Oracle, has given an estimated $45 million annually for over a decade to fight ageing. Paypal’s co-founder, Peter Thiel, has donated $6 million to the Sens Foundation which researches ageing and longevity.
Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin is said to have personally donated $50 million to researching diseases of old age, including Parkinson’s, allegedly after he learned he was at risk of developing the illness. As a company, Alphabet (the umbrella company of Google) has invested more than $730 million into a company called Calico, with the sole aim of extending human lifespans.
So, with a race to extend lifespans, what exactly are the technologies and innovations that are shaping up to be most effective?
Here are five of the front-runners:
Gene therapy is when carefully-selected DNA is inserted into an individual’s cells and tissues to treat a genetic disorder. Gene therapies have been shown to double life expectancy in mice by knocking out two genes thought to be connected to ageing.
This cutting-edge area of scientific research shows perhaps the greatest promise for addressing many of the afflictions that currently lead to premature death.
Improvements in diagnosis could also significantly extend lifespans; we could potentially detect life-threatening diseases that currently go unchecked, earlier and with more accuracy. One exciting breakthrough is the development of tiny sensors that can detect heart attacks before they happen.
We’re also seeing AI-assisted diagnosis in pathology for various cancers that are proving astonishingly accurate and significantly faster than existing techniques.
A key driver of the accuracy of new-generation diagnostic tools is increased access to data. In an effort to improve data access for research, pioneering American biologist and technologist Craig Venter has created a company called Human Longevity Inc, which plans to create a giant database of one million human genome sequences by 2020. Venter says that data should shed important new light on what makes for a longer, healthier life, and expects others working on life extension to use his database.
In recent years, scientists have made great advances in the construction of ‘replacement parts’ for humans whose own organs or bodies have worn out. Beyond robotic limbs, which are already being used widely, 3D printed organs and tissues are being developed. There are even robotic organs in development like artificial pancreases that can automatically administer drugs to control diabetes.
While medicines have played a key role in improving life expectancy over the last century, the next generation of medical treatments are using existing treatments, but in new ways.
For instance, the diabetes drug metformin has proven itself to be tremendously effective at helping patients defy ageing. Several other drugs are in development that copies the effects of genes that occur in long-lived people. One of these drugs being clinically trialled is rapamycin. While rapamycin is normally used to aid organ transplants and treat rare cancers, it has been shown to extend the life of mice by 25% and protect them against diseases of ageing including cancer and neurodegeneration. This is the greatest result achieved so far with a drug.
James Kirkland, a researcher who studies ageing at the Mayo Clinic, says he knows of about 20 drugs now – more than six of which had been written up in scientific journals – that extended the lifespan or health span of mice.
New immunotherapy treatments and cancer vaccines have proven very successful in addressing certain types of cancer. These vaccines try to train the body’s immune system to destroy cancer cells without damaging healthy ones.
Scientists are currently working on pairing new and old vaccines. Among the new combinations showing the most promise, is the practice of giving a tetanus booster prior to a patient receiving a newer cancer vaccine to treat a type of brain cancer.
A small trial involving 12 patients, showed that those who received this dual vaccine (rather than the cancer vaccine alone) lived three to seven years longer after treatment than those who received the vaccine without the tetanus portion.
While scientists are firmly of the belief that there is a limit to how long the human body can function, there is little doubt that average lifespans in the coming decades will extend well beyond 120. More than simply extending life, however, the goal now will be to enhance quality of life and combat the diseases we commonly associate with ageing, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
So while the fountain of eternal youth may evade us for a long while yet, it looks like turning 100 will soon be more commonplace than our grandparents could have ever imagined.
Keen to find out more about the future of healthcare and medicine? Check out our Future Happenings page where we talk AI, robots and telemedicine.
Michael McQueen is a multi-award winning speaker, trend forecaster, futurist and six-time bestselling author. With clients including KPMG, Pepsi and Cisco, he has helped some of the world’s most successful brands navigate disruption and maintain momentum. In addition to featuring regularly as a commentator on TV and radio, Michael has shared the stage at international conferences with the likes of Bill Gates, Dr. John Maxwell and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.