Outliving Our Life Expectancy

Outliving Our Life Expectancy

How long might I expect to live?

My life expectancy calculator comes up with a figure of 94.

Given that I am blessed with a good constitution, have a fairly healthy lifestyle, and both my parents are entering their nineties and living full and healthy lives, this seems quite reasonable. Barring mishaps, I will probably do the same.

Or probably much better...

Buckminster Fuller remarked how he had lived through his own life expectancy three times. When he was a child, average life expectancy was 45 years. When he was 45 it was 65 years. When he was 65, it was 75, He died at 82, as vibrant as ever.

If this pattern continues, and there's every reason to believe it will, then, by the time I am 80 average life expectancy may well be in the mid-eighties or nineties.

Just as sanitation, surgery and pharmaceuticals pushed up life expectancy in the past, today's biotech revolution will increase it still further. Gene therapy is promising new treatments for diseases of old age such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. Many hereditary illnesses will become curable. Stem cell research may lead to the replacement of worn out organs and tissues. As a result, average life expectancy may reach a hundred, or more.

Current medical understanding suggests that 120 may be the maximum. But who knows, by the time I am a hundred, new discoveries may well have broken that barrier. Our growing understanding of why cell's age could lead to the development of a cure for aging itself. (Some call it "Engineered negligible senescence")

What would happen if we started pushing average life expectancy up faster than the passage of time? What if every ten years average life expectancy would increase by more than ten years? We would reach "escape velocity"—the more time goes on, the more time we would have left. We would have effectively become immortal.

Some, such as Aubrey de Grey, believe this point is only 15 years away. In which case, many of us alive today, if we are healthy now and maintain a good health over the coming years, may have no limit to our life expectancy. Impossible to imagine? So was the Internet a hundred years ago.

This would, of course, bring many problems—the social and economic challenges of coping with such a population, ethical questions around euthanaisa, the morality of suicide, and restrictions on births—but I very much doubt that these will hold back the scientific research. And any new treatments that promise an extra ten years of life will find a ready market.

There is also the question of why anyone would want to live that long, or potentially forever. Many may not want to. But there will also be many who would jump at the opportunity—particularly if these added years promised to be reasonably healthy years.

These are challenging issues. But I will not go into them further here. For now I simply want to point out that it is very possible that our life expectancy will leap ahead far beyond what we now think possible.

blue line

However, it is not all good news. The bad news is that we are unlikely to live that long for completely different reasons, reasons that have nothing to do with the ageing process.

The growing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, combined with our much greater ease of travel, make some new epidemic or plague more likely. There might be some bioengineering mishap—the accidental release of a some virulent deadly pathogen into the environment. Global warming is now close to certainty, and no one knows how far its repercussions will stretch. It will almost certainly change our world and our society in ways we cannot imagine. Extreme weather may result in widespread crop failures and starvation. Nuclear hostilities are still possible. These are just some of the new potential calamities that could befall us—dangers that did not even exist a centuty ago .

So the question is not "How long is my biological life expectancy?" but "How long is my social life expectancy?"

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