A Future of Living in Health for Decades Beyond 100: Getting the Message Out

Most people are completely unaware of the great discontinuity in medical science that lies just ahead. They look back, and project forward based on what they see in the past - and no matter that we are in an era of sweeping, rapid change and progress. The average fellow in the street is laboring under the delusion that his future life will look much like that of his parents. But nothing could be further from the truth.

For centuries advances in medicine have provided a gradual increase in adult life expectancy, so slow that there really isn't a large enough gap to remark upon between the life spans of parent and child. The pace today is about a year gained every decade, and this despite very impressive recent advances in preventing and patching over the late stage consequences of cardiovascular aging. When the patching becomes more effective for one facet of aging, at the moment that just means that more people have the chance to be killed by something else, just a little further down the line. Aging is a global phenomenon in the body, and everything declines and fails at roughly the same time, give or take. If not heart failure, then dementia. If neither of those, then cancer. Or stroke, or atherosclerosis, or eventually poorly studied forms of amyloidosis that clog the heart and blood vessels.

If the approach to medicine continues to be a process of picking late stage dysfunction and failure, one item at a time, and producing marginally better ways of patching it up, then sure, this trend in increased longevity will continue very slowly, a year every decade. None of these gains in healthy life span are deliberate; they are all unintentional side-effects. Why should we expect a side-effect to be anything other than small? The only reason it is steady and continuing is that aging is damage, and medicine cannot be anything other than a process of repairing damage.

The coming discontinuity in medicine is this: researchers are going to start actually trying to treat aging directly as the medical condition it is. They will pin it down, produce ways to slow it or, far better, repair its root causes. They will at some point stop fumbling around with poor initial directions and marginally useful dead ends, such as calorie restriction mimetics, and start to produce effective therapies, such as implementations of SENS-like regenerative medicine. The business of "life extension" and "anti-aging" will be clawed back from the frauds and the cranks and the supplement sellers and the cosmetics companies and handed over to legitimate medical developers who produce procedures that actually do what it says on the label: reverse the course of degenerative aging.

The point here is that there is a world of difference between not trying at all to treat aging, the underlying cause of all age-related disease, and putting the weight of the medical research community behind deliberate attempts to treat aging. The present slow trend in life expectancy is the outcome of not trying. The future trend, based on thousands of researchers working hard to defeat aging and its causes, is going to look very different indeed.

These are exciting times to be in medical research. Yet the public at large is oblivious, and perhaps even disinterested. The view of aging in our culture is in no way similar to the view of cancer: that urge to do something about it is missing. Without widespread support funding at the large scale rarely emerges, however. At this time, then, it is very important for researchers to stand up on their soapboxes, a thing that scientists are notoriously reluctant to do, and make the case for the coming era of treatments for aging and all age-related disease. This is an example of the the sort of thing I mean, from a fellow who has been quite vocal on this topic in recent years:

The Coming Age of Unprecedented healthy Life Extension and Why You Should Be Cheering It On!

Have you given serious thought to what it would be like to live to age 120 plus? Recent polls in the US and Canada revealed that a large majority of people were decidedly not in favour of using biomedical interventions to be able to live past 120. No surprise you say? After all, why would anyone want to extend the part of our lives that we would rather avoid? Why prolong an old age that brings loss of independence, painful debilitating illnesses, mental decline - not to mention huge medical bills! Over eighty percent of our lifetime medical expenses occur in the last few years of life.

But wait! What if you could be in better physical and mental health in 20 years, than you are now? Would that change your view towards what is called by futurists and aging researchers "radical life extension"?

Imagine yourself in your late 80's happily playing tennis, in your 90's hiking around Machu Picchu, getting a second masters degree in literature and then in your 100's writing a best-selling novel (something you never thought of doing until you were 97!). What if this could all be done while helping the planet develop into a more sustainable, healthy place to live?

Sound too futuristically phantasmagoric? Maybe not! Consider that retirement planning is about the future - your future. And given the acceleration of change in our world, consider that your future will be dramatically different than your past. Perhaps the most important feature about your future is that radical healthy life extension is coming. Just how soon it arrives is up to us, our openness to it, our actions supporting it: we are all invited to embark on a grand new exploration into a never-before-seen-world of radical healthy life extension enabled by technology. But for it to manifest fully is a choice, our choice.


It's going to come out of the US or Europe because Western people are progressive. Japan, China and India don't have Aubrey de Grey's to fix this for them.

Posted by: Michael at May 29th, 2014 11:50 PM

@Michael - The Japanese prime minister has given a massive funding boost to stem cell medicine, is paying for a couple of research institutes to be built, and has changed the law so that stem cell therapies can be sold (and more importantly marketed) in Japan after only stage 2 trials have been completed.

If only the US, Europe, and the rest of the world would do the same for stem cell research (and then aging research in general).

Posted by: Jim at May 30th, 2014 5:47 AM

@Jim: well, that's the Economist...

@Michael: "progressive"? What does that even mean, considering the Japanese are amongst the global leaders in robotics, even trying to (unsuccessfully for the moment) put robots in hospitals ? I don't see any of this in my country.

Posted by: Nico at May 30th, 2014 11:20 AM

The U.S. is still the leader in innovation, especially with biotechnology (not that researchers in other countries aren't doing amazing things).

Asia is exploding with wealth and opportunity. People are being lifted out of poverty rapidly. However, it will take them many decades and slow U.S. growth to catch up.

The true threat comes from our own government via regulation. Are they going to continue to chase capital and thus innovation offshore with more taxes and laws (Reason's posts on this nail it down perfectly)?


I would offer up Google's self driving car, Tesla's electric car, Virgin Galactic space travel (British owned but operating out of the U.S.) as three great examples of American tech. There are a ton of others.

Posted by: johnathan at May 30th, 2014 12:56 PM

Aubrey himself has said there's a lot of resistance in Eastern cultures because of their general views on life and death. These kinds of places usually follow the West and have a good uptake of technology but they are not the kinds of places to develop it initially as a concept. I can't think of a company based outside of the West that is working on the areas of SENS outside of stem cells.

Posted by: Michael at May 30th, 2014 11:30 PM

I've never been a fan of the term, "Radical Life Extension". Anything developed by SENS or outside of it is ultimately medicine just much more effective than current medicine.

Posted by: Michael at May 31st, 2014 9:44 PM

I think there are huge differences among "Eastern cultures" so that it's not so useful to group them all together. In that same session where Aubrey mentioned the lack of traction in the East someone from the audience suggested religious beliefs as a cause. That's a good example, because it may be true of some Eastern cultures but it's not likely true of others. Japan, for instance, is a very irreligious country. Religious adherence is mostly nominal or associated with cultural pratices rather than deeply held. Many of the younger generation increasingly identify as atheist.

Perhaps we're just lucky to have Aubrey de Grey. Without his enduring advocacy, the idea of regenerative medicine against aging might never have entered the cultural consciousness of the West to the extent it has and we would be similarly situated.

I think Japan could be quite receptive to "the message" under the right circumstances. There may be some cultural inclination to the tragic view of life, but plausibility arguments can work well to overcome that. I don't see any truly formidable ideological barriers. FWIW, the portrayals of extended longevity in Japanese popular fiction are probably less negative on average than portrayals in Wetern media.

Posted by: José at June 1st, 2014 7:12 PM

Life extension may be necessary for the sake of Japan itself. They have a huge aging population and a very low birth rate. Combined with the cultural attributes @jose mentioned I could see Japan becoming an important ally.

Posted by: johnathan at June 2nd, 2014 8:11 AM

Great article. Please keep me posted on any further news.

Posted by: Robert Vinson at October 22nd, 2014 4:30 PM

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