When I'm 164: How Can Bioscience Push the Limits of Lifespan?

We may be closer than most realize to significant increases in life expectancy.

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In 1835, Charles Darwin reached the Galapagos Islands aboard the HMS Beagle. While there, someone (possibly Darwin) captured a tortoise named Harriet. She lived for 176 years, finally dying in 2006. 

Other organisms in nature are known to live considerably longer than Harriet. These include the Methuselah tree, a bristlecone pine in Southern California that, at 4,843 years old, is perhaps the oldest known complex organism on Earth. Other creatures that age very slowly and live up to hundreds of years, showing little signs of senescence (aging), include rockfish, clams, lobsters and jellyfish.

Humans, too, live a long time compared to most species. The longest-living primates other than humans are our closest relatives in evolution, chimpanzees. They have an average life span of 53 years. This makes the current life expectancy in the West of nearly 80 years, with a maximum life span of 120 or so. Quite long, though not in the same league as Harriet the tortoise or bristlecone pine trees.

As scientists make new breakthroughs in understanding the mechanics of aging, the upper limits of aging might be changing for Homo sapiens. Already, life expectancy has increased dramatically since the late nineteenth century, when it was 40 for males and 42 for females at birth, and age 58 and 59 respectively if they survived to age 10 (infant mortality was much higher in 1890).

Life expectancy is expected to keep rising to perhaps age 100 sometime in the 22nd century, according to the United Nations. This comes from better hygiene and nutrition, and also from bio-med breakthroughs that range from antibiotics to targeted therapies for cancer and robotic surgery.

Is it possible that new waves of discoveries might take us on a path of even more dramatic increases in life extension?

Until recently, mainstream scientists would have answered with an emphatic no, suggesting that this was a fantasy offered up by alchemists, charlatans, and pseudo-scientists. Two trends have shifted this point of view.

The first is a realization that aging is one of the greatest risk factors for many diseases, and therefore needs to be seriously addressed by biomedical researchers. Not with a primary endpoint of radically prolonging life, which remains controversial, but as a major element of conventional research into understanding and combating cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases of the elderly.

The second trend is that scientists have succeeded in upping the lifespan of many animals, sometimes dramatically, discoveries that have launched wide-ranging research into the mechanics of aging. The big question is: Can these processes be replicated in humans?

Since becoming more legitimate in the 1990s and early 2000s, the field of longevity and anti-aging research has generated serious efforts to answer this question. Work is being conducted primarily in four different areas: Healthy Living and Predictive and Preventive Medicine; Genetics; Regeneration; and Machine Solutions. (I touched on some of this material in a recent New York Times article; here I will expand on what is happening in the field of anti-aging science.)

Healthy living and preventive medicine

Healthier living already has increased lifespans and prevented death for literally billions of people over the past 150 years. But we could still do more, especially to combat lifestyle conditions and diseases like obesity and diabetes, which prematurely kill millions of people a year. Billions also still live in poverty, with over one billion people facing hunger each day.

The science of predictive and preventive medicine is moving in fast to collect health data on people -- everything from one's DNA to measurements of environmental toxins and a host of other tests -- that might help predict their health future. Though much needs to be done to better collect and interpret this data, the field promises to be able to identify future risk factors for diseases such as cancer or heart disease before it happens.

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David Ewing Duncan is a journalist in San Francisco. He is also a television, radio, and film producer, and he has written eight books. His most recent e-book is entitled When I’m 164: The Science of Radical Life Extension, and What Happens If It Succeeds. More

Duncan's previous books include Experimental Man: What one man's body reveals about his future, your health, and our toxic world. He is a correspondent for Atlantic.com and the Chief Correspondent of public radio's Biotech Nation, broadcast on NPR Talk. He has been a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition, and a contributing editor for Wired, Discover and Conde Nast Portfolio. David has written for The New York Times, Fortune, National Geographic, Harper's, The Atlantic, and many other publications. He is a former special correspondent and producer for ABC Nightline, and correspondent for NOVA's ScienceNOW! He has won numerous awards including the Magazine Story of the Year from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His articles have twice been cited in nominations for National Magazine Awards, and his work has appeared twice in The Best American Science and Nature Writing. He is the founding director of the Center of Life Science Policy at UC Berkeley, and a founder of the BioAgenda Institute. His website is www.davidewingduncan.com

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