All of What Was, Some of What Is, and None of What Will Be

The mind of humanity dwells somewhat in the now, a great deal in the recent past, and very little in the future. The greatest attention is focused on what is and what recently was - an outcome of our evolutionary history. You can imagine how a focus on learning to live in the world of the the recent past was a predictor for success under most circumstances for our more primitive ancestors.

These days, stand still to ruminate upon recent events and you're liable to have a building erected above you while you pause, and fifteen new technologies dropped into your lap to boot. The evolved biases stand, however: while a great many people claim to look foward with wisdom and sagacity, few do more than transpose the fundament and structure of last week ahead by seven days. We humans just don't put much effort into thinking about how the future will in fact be different from the past, and what that means for our actions and choices.

One manifestation of this bias is seen in the nature of the periodic articles about centenarians that are a staple of the popular press. Now that researchers can start to talk about biochemistry and genes in relation to longevity, these pieces are cropping up in the popular science press too. The underlying question is always "how did they do it, living to 100 like that?" More accurately, the question beneath that is "how can I do it too?"

The standard form of the answers to this question is always rooted in the recent past. If things never changed, if medical technology and culture remained static, how could I do as well as a centenarian? But of course all that stasis is implicit, hidden under the covers, as it is in so many other considerations of the future. The world of last week never ends in the inner mind of humanity, and we shall dwell in it forever.

Here's a short Scientific American piece in which S. Jay Olshansky says some sensible things about centenarian health and longevity as an example of the type.

SciAm: Is it possible that Dosova gave birth to a daughter when she was 54 years old? Olshansky: Believe it or not, that's exactly what you would think for someone who has had a very long life. In centenarians and supercentenarians - people over 110 - you see a higher level of fecundity much later in life. These women will still be having periods and producing eggs later than the average female. As long as the body believes it is reproductively active and keeps producing certain sex hormones, these seem to help protect the body against aging. As soon as menopause occurs, things begin to change in a woman's body very rapidly. If you look at records of centenarians, many of them in fact had children in their late 40s. So if Dosova did have a child at the age of 54, it would likely corroborate her story rather than detract from it.

Here, the claim of a 130 year old woman is fairly safe to throw out without iron-clad documentation. That she's a centenarian seems sound, but 130 stretches plausibility. The commentary on longevity is still sound, however.

But back to your future. In the world of last week, in which nothing really changes but your age, you won't make it to 100. That's a safe bet no matter how well you take care of your health. The only thing that will enable many of us to live in good health past a century of life is the advance of medical technology - in other words, new science and new therapies that don't exist in the here and now.

The speed with which medicine advances is predicated upon just how many of us support that advance. If you live your life in the land of last week, or the land of how your parents lived, or any of the other seductive places that your evolved nature causes you to be predisposed to enjoy, then I'm sorry to say that you're not helping. The coming decades could see some of the most transformative advances in medical technology yet, and it is possible to envisage with some precision the tools and therapies that could rejuvenate the old by repairing the damage of aging. This will only happen rapidly enough to help those of us reading this now if many more people get behind the wheel and push.

Recognize that the greatest determinant of your future health and longevity is medical science and technology that has yet to be developed, not whatever was a good health practice last week. Then figure out how you can help.


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