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How Long Can We Live? Medicine Will Transcend the Limits of Biology

Posted: Fri, March 15, 2013 | By: Technology

by David Kekich

Dear Future Centenarian,

According to Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a lack of biology is the only limit on longevity.

In his personal opinion, medicine is all about transcending the limits of biology. Where we have not yet transcended, such as in maximum observed human lifespan, is because the necessary biotechnology has not yet been developed. You can read the report HERE

Aubrey de Grey
Aubrey de Grey

What does he mean by the “only limit?”

As we know, we only have about one chance in a thousand to live to 100 with today’s medicine. On that note, I took a short and entertaining online lifespan calculator test yesterday HERE. Since it was developed by Northwestern Mutual, I had high hopes for its accuracy. But it pegged my expected lifespan at 101.

That was ludicrous. They obviously didn’t map my genome, and genetics take over around the age of 90. Sure, there’s much you can do to make it to 90, but you’ll need breakthroughs in biology to expect to make it to 101.

But the technology of tomorrow will paint a different picture. If you want to talk about longevity and mortality rates, you have to qualify your position by stating what sort of applied biotechnologies are available. Longevity is a function of the quality and type of medicine that’s available across a lifespan.

Most life-extending breakthroughs which have occurred in the past hundred years, have solved problems that killed people early in life. Infectious disease, for example, is controlled to a degree that would have been thought utopian in the squalor of Victorian England.

The things that kill older people are more challenging. Great progress has been made in reducing mortality from heart disease in the past few decades for example, but that’s just one late stage consequence of the complex array of biochemical processes that we call aging.

The point of this discussion? Tremendous progress in medicine, including the defeat or taming of many varied causes of death and disability, has not greatly lengthened the maximum human lifespan in practice.

The research community hasn’t really started in earnest on the work on rejuvenation biotechnology. The story of medicine to date has been work on other line items, or largely futile attempts to patch over the failure modes that lie at the end of aging.

Since aging is only an accumulation of damage, there’s a gentle trend towards extended life as a result of general improvements across the board in medicine - perhaps one year of additional life with every three to five years of technological progress at the present time.

On average, people with access to modern technology and support suffer biological damage at the cellular level and molecular machinery more slowly across their lives. But this is slow going incidental life extension.

Given this history of medical progress, you’ll find many life science researchers and advocates who view the human lifespan as bounded.

They look to past progress and extrapolate to assume that future progress can only continue improving things within the existing human maximum life span. In other words, that more and more people will live in good health closer to that maximum, but that the maximum is set in stone.

There’s are even names for this goal, “squaring the mortality curve” and “compression of morbidity.”

This is a noble undertaking as it reduces end-of-life suffering and medical expense. But instead of a goal in itself, it merely delays the inevitable.

So advocates for super longevity need to make sure their efforts don’t get sidetracked by short-term feel-good progress at the expense of a real long-term solution to our aging dilemma.

The future of medicine in the next few decades is not about gaining a decade of life with no hope of pushing out human life span beyond 120 years. It’s about building the alpha versions of medical technologies that can provide open-ended healthy lifespans.

But until many more people come to understand this point, there will continue to be the same lack of support for research that will lead to radical change in the relationship of medicine and aging.

More Life,

David Kekich

This essay was originally posted at Maximum Life, HERE  


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