Managed Expectations

If there's one unerring sign of progress in healthy life extension, life spans and therapies for age-related conditions, it's an upward trend in complaints about the specifics of age-related degeneration. Perspective is a lost art. An article from the Australian media is rather representative:

The average Australian man can now expect to spend 5.4 years of his life with a severe disability, needing help to perform the most basic tasks such as washing or going to the toilet.

The latest Australian life expectancy figures, released today, show that while overall life expectancy has again risen, the average man will also spend almost two decades - or 18.6 years - with a lesser disability.

One has to keep a sense of perspective; if you look back at the past, the present state of affairs is a great improvement - and getting better. The serious age-related diseases are more successfully treated than ever:

Men and women who make it to age 75 in 2006 can expect to still be around in 2016 and 2017, respectively. At age 85, the odds are good that you'll reach 91. ... people who study aging trends believe that life expectancies for the old will continue to grow longer. The main reason is that the three biggest killers of older people - heart disease, cancer, and stroke - are being treated more successfully.

On the flip side of the coin, we should keep realistic expectations when it comes to the present pace - and best possible pace we can engineer - in medical progress. There are no miracles; there is steady hard work that produces commensurate steady advances in infrastructure and capabilities. By way of an example, a recent article on the death of a stem cell patient and advocate Ian Rosenberg gives an idea as to the sort of gains we can expect from much-hyped first generation stem cell therapies:

Ian Rosenberg, who was diagnosed with heart failure five years ago and given just two months to live before he opted for the therapy in Germany, passed away last Friday aged 70.

By 2003, his heart failure was severe and only seven per cent of his heart was functioning.

He was referred to a consultant cardiologist who had been investigating stem cell research and was later referred to the Johann Wolfgang Goethe Hospital in Frankfurt, where a team was conducting human trials, taking adult stem cells from bone marrow in the hip and injecting them into the main artery of the heart.


Stem cell therapy transformed Ian's life. It gave him three years he would never otherwise have had.

This is in line with the sort of results being seen in similar trials and treatments around the world. It's both a great advance and modest incremental improvement over what came before. The technology and its results will become better with time and research - and none of that is reason to disparage what is now, or the field in general.

The bottom line: what is it worth to you to be alive and inconvenienced, as opposed to alive and disabled, or dead? All progress towards longer lives and the defeat of age-related degeneration should be welcomed and encouraged. If a transition period of lesser disabilities and annoyances is the price to pay for the focus on dealing with major concerns first, then so be it.

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