Living to 150: How Will Society Adapt?

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If marriages routinely lasted 125 years, would you be more cautious in choosing a partner? What if the average age of retirement was 100 to 110? Advances in biomedical research and regenerative medicine are moving at breakneck speed, causing some scientists to predict lifespans of 150 years or longer.

Pew Research recently asked respondents if they would undergo medical treatments to slow the aging process and extend their life spans to 120 years or more. Surprisingly, a majority (58 percent) said they would not. Asked if they believe the average person could live to 120 years by the year 2015, 73 percent said no.

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Still, scientists and futurists are optimistic that our traditional 80 to 90 years on earth are on the fast track to be significantly extended. The big question mark is how society will cope with a much larger population of elderly citizens.

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“People say no to wanting to live longer because they look at their grandmother who takes 20 pills a day and has trouble getting out of the chair,” said Brian Kennedy, CEO and Scientific Director of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. “Our mission is to try to extend human ‘healthspans,’ not just lifespans. “It’s largely about preventative and regenerative medicine. If we can keep adult stem cells healthy and possibly even regenerate organs in the future, elderly people will be able to stay productive at work and stay on the tennis court, as well.”

As for the planet becoming too overcrowded, Kennedy says it may be just the opposite.

“Look at Japan as an example,” he said. “The average home has 1.3 kids and that’s not enough to keep the population going. That’s true in many countries where the developing world is becoming more concerned about having enough children in the population. If things do not change, you can almost predict when the last Japanese will be on earth. Russia pays you to have children. China will stop its one child per family policy. In wealthier parts of the world the issue is actually under-population.”

Still, many people express concern about tampering with what they consider the natural order of things. Is it ethical or even reasonable to manipulate the human lifespan?

“I don’t differentiate aging from curing cancer,” Kennedy said. “We spend tons on cancer treatment and now people live two to three times longer than they did 50 years ago and some are cured. We think of that as the right thing to do. What we’re trying to do is target the risk factor for cancer, diabetes, cataracts, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.  The risk factor is aging.”

Even with advances in biomedical research, there are still societal factors that could get in the way of a healthy and productive, aging population, said Alexander Zhavoronkov, author of “The Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biomedicine Will Transform the Global Economy.”

“How society adjusts to the aging population will depend on the economy,” Zhavoronkov said. “If we rejuvenate ourselves faster than we increase our lifespan, we will go into what one futurist called a state of radical abundance. The longer lifespan is already a reality and will continue to be extended. But my greatest fear would be economic collapse. The science is already in place, but if something happens to the U.S. dollar, the beating heart of the global economy, the world essentially dies for some time.”

If the economy remains reasonably stable, Zhavoronkov is optimistic about a productive, aging population.