Death is the great equalizer, and one of the two aspects of God in most religious systems. Some, like Singularity University expert Jose Luis Cordeiro, are claiming that the “death of death” is near. We don’t need to go so far. What if we could reach 120 years old with reasonable health and well-being? Wouldn’t that be great?
Life expectancy from antiquity to the current today hasn’t really changed but has changed very much at the same time. It hasn’t really changed in the sense that a genetically and environmentally lucky human specimen could reach 90 years in Ancient Greece, today that same specimen might reach 100+, not much of a change. At the same time, the average lifespan has multiplied. In the past most humans were unlucky and they died as infants, children or adults, mainly through infectious disease. The 20th century decisively won the battle against infectious disease and now life expectancies routinely match that of the lucky Athenian.
However, we seem to have hit a stumbling block in terms of maximum life expectancy and, even more importantly, quality of old age. Our main killers nowadays are dependent on lifestyle and decay, and they are mostly chronic. Our health system and technology are much less capable of dealing with them. Cancer, the other main killer, is a product of decay but looks more like an infectious disease in terms of its severity and outcomes. We are getting better with cancer but it is still much beyond our control.
Being able to achieve the dream of being 120-year-olds with significant life quality requires that we are able to overcome both. It probably also requires that we somehow reverse cellular decay processes that seem to take place throughout the body and take to the grave even the luckiest of us. There are only between 150 and 600 supercentenarians alive that have lived beyond 110, and the oldest women alive just got to 122 years old. 120-year-old youths would be really a transformation as a species.
If we start with our chronic diseases, taking care of those could be embarrassingly easy. Books like Ray Kurzweil’s Transcend cover the 9 steps required to overcome most of the current killers. They are fairly low tech: talking to your doctor regularly, relaxation, regular health assessments, nutrition, calory reduction, exercise, some new technologies, and detoxification. Mostly common sense backed by truckloads of scientific evidence. Still, most of us don’t exercise, live stressed-out lives, don’t do health-assessments, eat too much and too bad, and don’t play to our genetic weaknesses. This first step might be more about Neurogamification than Bioprogramming.
The results from a regimen like the one prescribed by the one above would result in a step improvement from current health challenges. The top 10 causes of disease in high-income countries today according to the WHO are: Ischaemic heart disease, Stroke, Alzheimer’s and other dementias, Trachea, bronchus and lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, colon and rectal cancer, diabetes mellitus, kidney disease and breast cancer. From the list, more than half have a majority of attribution to lifestyle choices (lack of exercise, obesity, smoking, drinking, pollution) and breast cancer has an important genetic component. Only colon and rectal cancer can be considered a true “non-lifestyle non-genetic” killer.
If next, we look at cancer, it is tougher but we are making progress. First, we have traditional treatments like chemo and radiotherapy which have progressively improved survival rates. Second, genomics-based treatments covered earlier have much potential in terms of reducing overall impact from rarer cancers. Third, new treatments are coming out all the time, like a soon to be approved by the FDA cancer treatment that uses the body own immune system. Finally, either very precise artificial life or nanobots will be designed at some point that can detect and eliminate cancer right away. We might be still decades away, but after all most of us are decades away from being 120.
The final frontier is cell degeneration. Cells are programmed to die and they degenerate. Our genes don’t care much about us once we have outlived our reproductive capability, so we decay and die. This is not true with all organisms. Single cell organisms like bacteria continue endlessly, it could even be argued that the original bacteria might live on, even if in a highly mutated state, after close to three billion years. Replicating this in the human cell requires a lot of basic science work. Silicon Valley billionaires are helping here as they are donating significant amounts to research and creating a new industry dubbed the “Immortality Industry”.
Considering all of this getting to 120-year-olds in a quite healthy status might require some work, but for those who value their time on Earth highly, it might be feasible. The impact of 120 healthy year-olds would require us to change many of our ways of organizing society. If 65 starts to be when you get your midlife crisis it might be a little earlier for retirement. Healthcare costs might rise to 20, 30 or 40% of total GDP. After all, there is little more precious than life. Finally, inheritance might take a fully new concept when you can expect to reasonably be a great-great-grandfather.
If you want to try to get there you just need to start changing your habits in very common sense ways. Think that cigarette, that rerun of Game of Thrones that kept you out of the gym, or those extra pounds might cost you decades of healthy living.