Since it doesn't get much press these days, newcomers to our longevity science community might not be aware of the wager made nearly two decades ago between optimist Steven Austad and pessimist S. Jay Olshansky on the trajectory of future human life expectancy. The core of the wager is whether or not the research and medical communities will develop and implement means of radical life extension sufficient to result in 150-year old humans within next century or so. Given where things stand today, I'd say that betting against this outcome is tough to justify. Fifty years in technology is a very long time in this era of rapid progress in applied science, never mind a century, and the first rejuvenation therapies that work by removing a fundamental cause of aging are already heading to the clinic.
It is possible that someone reading this now will be alive to see the resolution of a $1 billion bet between Jay Olshansky, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor of public health, and Steven Austad, chairman of biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Eighteen years ago, the two friends began their discussion on an issue that long has intrigued scientists and laymen alike: What is the limit of the human life span? Austad, whose research focuses on aging, had made a bold prediction at an academic conference: In the year 2150, he said, there will be a 150-year-old human being. Olshansky, also an expert on aging, wasn't having it.
They decided to make it interesting. They each put $150 into an investment fund, and signed a contract specifying that the heirs of the winner will cash it out in 2150. Early published reports on the wager said the payoff would be from $200 million to $500 million given good market returns, but the men have since doubled their initial investments and they now estimate the final jackpot at roughly $1 billion.
Since they made wager in 2000, average human life spans have inched up. I asked Olshansky if, in light of the galloping progress of medicine on all fronts, he was having any second thoughts about his position. None, he said. If anything he's more certain than ever that his descendants - he has one grandchild so far - will be made fabulously wealthy. "There will certainly be breakthroughs that will slow many of the biological processes of aging. We'll be able to extend the number of years that people can live in good health but the brain is our Achilles heel. There's still no evidence to suggest that we'll be able to halt the effects of the daily loss of nonreplicating neurons, much less reverse it. We can replace hips, knees, hearts and so on, but we can't replace the brain."
Austad, too, believes more firmly than ever in his position. "We're discovering more and more ways every year to make mice live longer through drugs and diet. A 150-year-old person is only about 20 percent older than the current record holder, and we've found dozens of ways to extend the lives of mice by that much. Not all of them will work with humans, of course, but if any of them do, we're going to see dramatic results. All we have to do in the next 30 years is find drugs that dramatically slow the underlying causes of aging. If we give them to people approaching 50, some are going to reach the extreme of 150."