If you were born in 1900, you could call yourself lucky if you’d seen a day past your 50th birthday. The XXth century, however, marked an amazing leap in longevity thanks to the advent of vaccines, increased public health awareness, and medical discoveries. In time, the leading causes of death and illness have shifted from infectious and parasitic diseases to noncommunicable diseases and chronic conditions. Sure, more people die today of cancer and heart disease than ever before, but it sure beats dying of typhoid. The extra decades in lifespan sure don’t sound bad, either. Life expectancy at birth now exceeds 83 years in Japan—the current leader—and is at least 81 years in several other countries. The trend seems to be accelerating, especially for those at the extreme lifespan end. The population of adults 85 and older is projected to increase 351 percent by 2050, while those older than 100 will increase 10-fold between 2010 and 2050.
Just three centuries ago, life expectancy was less than 16 years and 75% of people born in London in 1662 died before they reached the age of 26. By treating both early and elderly causes of death, life-span has shot through the roof.
At the same time, the maximal lifespan seemed to be not affected. At least not significantly. But is this set to change? The oldest person in the world was Jeanne Louise Calment, who lived to be 122 years. On the other hand, Calment along with the other runner-ups (the second oldest person is 119 years old) were born in the XIXth century. Can we expect people born in today to live up to 150 years old? That’s a tough question to answer. It was assumed that human lifespan is close to its upper limits. However, surprising demographics and gerontologists, it was shown that life expectancy continues to increase at an astonishing pace. Over the course of human history, the odds of living from birth to age 100 may have risen from 1 in 20,000,000 to 1 in 50 for females in low- mortality nations such as Japan and Sweden.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t prove that the new 100 will be 150 a couple decades from now. Not without assistance. Yes, more people grow older than ever, and in good health too, but it doesn’t seem to last. They deteriorate fast, seemingly indicating that the rate of aging was not changed but just aging was postponed. “Taken together, these findings are so perplexing that they can be dubbed the ‘longevity riddle’: why do the evolutionary forces that shaped human aging provide a license to alter the level of health but not the rate of debilitation?”, a team of researchers writes.
Verne Wheelwright is 79 years old, but he says he feels like he’s 60. The health enthusiast says a lifespan of 120 years is within reach for most people of the next generation. Key therapies and technologies such as gene editing, stem cell therapy and 3D bioprinting are fundamentally altering modern medicine in ways that could lead to much longer human lifespans and possibly put a century of life well within reach for most people. In fact, 120 seems to be a magic number – it has its own Wikipedia page and
In Palo Alto, a hedge fund investor is pushing the 120-mark even further. Joon Yun launched a $1m prize challenging scientists to “hack the code of life” and push human lifespan past its apparent maximum of about 120 years. So far, 15 scientific teams have entered and will be awarded in the first instance for restoring vitality and extending lifespan in mice by 50%.
Perhaps the most promising longevity venture was founded in 2014 by American biologist and technologist Craig Venter (the guys who wants to fit the next rover to Mars with DNA sequencing instruments) and X Prize Foundationțs Peter Diamandis. Their company, Human Longevity Inc., wants to create a giant database of 1 million human genome sequences by 2020, including from supercentenarians. Venter says that data should shed important new light on what makes for a longer, healthier life, and expects others working on life extension to use his database.
“Our approach can help Calico (company which sells anti-aging drugs) immensely and if their approach is successful it can help me live longer,” explains Venter. “We hope to be the reference center at the middle of everything.”
“We have really turned a corner,” says Brian Kennedy, director of the Buck Institute for Research on Ageing, adding that five years ago the scientific consensus was that aging research was interesting but unlikely to lead to anything practical. “We’re now at the point where it’s easy to extend the lifespan of a mouse. That’s not the question anymore, it’s can we do this in humans? And I don’t see any reason why we can’t,” says David Sinclair, a researcher based at Harvard.