I had somehow missed this event from earlier in the year, a provocative (by mainstream standards) ad campaign mounted by a portion of the insurance industry: "The First Person To Live To 150 Is Alive Today." I take the existence of such a campaign as a sign of progress in ongoing efforts to spread the twofold message that (a) much longer lives are possible in the future, and (b) it is necessary to support the research process in order to make this happen soon enough to matter to you and I. Most of the children born today in wealthier parts of the world will have the opportunity to live for centuries at the very least, but the odds of people presently in mid-life are far more dependent on the pace of medical progress, and whether or not the right research strategies are nurtured.
By the side of an expressway the other afternoon, I saw a billboard paid for by Prudential, the big insurance and financial-services company. The message, in letters large enough that no motorist zipping by could miss them: "The First Person To Live To 150 Is Alive Today."
For centuries, scientists have been debating theories about just how long, with proper health care and judicious personal habits, the human lifespan can extend. In recent years, the 150 number has been up for discussion. Some have scoffed at that prospect, but insurance-company actuaries and retirement-planning accountants are not known for wacky practical jokes - they are as somber-eyed as funeral directors as they calculate just how big a risk they run while writing policies for their customers of various ages - so the sight of that Prudential billboard was a little jarring.
I contacted Prudential's corporate headquarters, and the company forwarded to me a table of federal statistics showing the lengthening average lifespans in the U.S. over the past 80 or so years. In 1930, the average life expectancy (measured at birth) of Americans was 59.7 years. By 1940, it had grown to 62.9. 1950: 68.2. 1960: 69.7. 1970: 70.8. 1980: 73.7 1990: 75.4. 2000: 77. 2010: 78.7.
Whether infants born today are entering a world in which 150th birthdays will eventually become if not common then at least possible, the thought raises separate issues for insurance and financial-planning firms than it does for the rest of us. For those companies, the prospect provides marketing opportunities. But for everyone else, it prompts the vexing question: Would you really want to live that long?