Do you look right and left when you cross a street? Would you call 911 if you felt a sudden twinge in your chest?
But when it comes to the question of whether we can hope for a longer life overall, we are divided. Some argue that “our current life expectancy is already putting enough strain on the planet”. Others see the pursuit of longer life as another expression of our greed for more (more money, more power, more status, etc.).
I find these arguments disconcerting. For example, a longer life does not necessarily have to have a negative effect on the environment: If the life span in the future were to be around 110 years, even childless people would have an incentive to do business more sustainably and to work for the “grandchild suitability” of our planet. This would then also include childless heads of government, who at least at present govern many countries in Europe. This could overcompensate for the additional consumption of resources.
Much of the disagreement still seems to arise from the fact that the phrase “getting as old as possible” sounds as if the main thing is to live long and health is secondary. 30 more years of life in the body of an 80-year-old person seems understandably desirable to few people.
However, I believe that one does not have to choose between quality and quantity and that both can be improved. The following figure tries to give a different definition of life expectancy, which is dependent on health
of the life time depends on it.
On the x-axis the lifetime is plotted in years, while the y-axis describes the state of health. Life expectancy is the area under the curve. The violet curve describes the actual condition for the average person in an industrialized country.
From about the age of 30, our health decreases. At first the decline is slow and imperceptible, but eventually we decline faster and faster (the curve falls more and more with increasing life expectancy). By the age of 70 our health decreases by about 50% (loss of muscle mass, bone density decreases etc.).
In the last decade of our life (in the graph between the ages of 70 and 80) our health then often decreases rapidly. We only rarely recover from (serious) diseases. A simple fall down the stairs can already initiate later death.
So how could we change the course of the curve so that life expectancy (=health and life time) increases?
The green curve provides the answer. For one thing, we simply want to live longer. So the curve should intersect the x-axis later than before (in the example at x=100 instead of x=80 before). But we also do not want to live longer in poor health. At the same time, the deterioration of health should be stopped or slowed down. Therefore, the green curve runs longer (approximately) horizontally, before finally health declines here as well. In concrete terms, this could mean, for example, that the average 80-year-old will be just as healthy in the future as a 50-year-old is today.
Although we are still a long way from such progress today, such scenarios are more than just science fiction. After we have made great leaps in life expectancy over the past centuries (e.g. through increased hygiene, safe births with significantly lower risk for mother and child, antibiotics, etc.), the last decades have been marked “only” by incremental progress.
But this need not remain so. There are many possibilities (e.g. reprogramming progenitor cells, targeted removal of senescent cells, administration of rapamycin, etc.) which can increase our life expectancy and which have already shown promising effects in other species.
In any case, I am very glad that some bright minds are addressing precisely these issues and are not satisfied with our current life expectancy. Who would no longer like to live a healthy life?