Category Archives: life expectancy

Do you want to live forever?

One of the primary themes in our novel, “Rabbit in the Moon” is finding the secret of longevity. We started with the premise: what if someone in 1989 had succeeded in extending man’s lifespan well beyond that normal limits? Then we asked: who would want such a discovery and what might they do to get their hands on it? 

At the time we wrote the book, we assumed most people would want to live to be at least 150 – as long as could live a quality life. But interestingly, as we’ve gone around the country speaking to book clubs and library groups, not everyone agrees. Many of the reasons they give us are those that make our fictional character Dr. Ni-Fu Cheng ultimately decide not to give mankind his secret.

In this essay by David Ewing Duncan a contributor to Science Times, Duncan says that he has polled audiences as we have and come up with many of the same responses. Read it here and let us know your thoughts: 

How Long Do You Want to Live?

By DAVID EWING DUNCAN

SINCE 1900, the life expectancy of Americans has jumped to just shy of 80 from 47 years. This surge comes mostly from improved hygiene and nutrition, but also from new discoveries and interventions: everything from antibiotics and heart bypass surgery to cancer drugs that target and neutralize the impact of specific genetic mutations.

Now scientists studying the intricacies of DNA and other molecular bio-dynamics may be poised to offer even more dramatic boosts to longevity. This comes not from setting out explicitly to conquer aging, which remains controversial in mainstream science, but from researchers developing new drugs and therapies for such maladies of growing old as heart disease and diabetes.

“Aging is the major risk factor for most diseases,” says Felipe Sierra, director of the Division of Aging Biology at the National Institute on Aging. “The National Institutes of Health fund research into understanding the diseases of aging, not life extension, though this could be a side effect.”

How many years might be added to a life? A few longevity enthusiasts suggest a possible increase of decades. Most others believe in more modest gains. And when will they come? Are we a decade away? Twenty years? Fifty years?

Even without a new high-tech “fix” for aging, the United Nations estimates that life expectancy over the next century will approach 100 years for women in the developed world and over 90 years for women in the developing world. (Men lag behind by three or four years.)

Whatever actually happens, this seems like a good time to ask a very basic question: How long do you want to live?

Over the past three years I have posed this query to nearly 30,000 people at the start of talks and lectures on future trends in bioscience, taking an informal poll as a show of hands. To make it easier to tabulate responses I provided four possible answers: 80 years, currently the average life span in the West; 120 years, close to the maximum anyone has lived; 150 years, which would require a biotech breakthrough; and forever, which rejects the idea that life span has to have any limit at all.

I made it clear that participants should not assume that science will come up with dramatic new anti-aging technologies, though people were free to imagine that breakthroughs might occur — or not.

The results: some 60 percent opted for a life span of 80 years. Another 30 percent chose 120 years, and almost 10 percent chose 150 years. Less than 1 percent embraced the idea that people might avoid death altogether.

These percentages have held up as I’ve spoken to people from many walks of life in libraries and bookstores; teenagers in high schools; physicians in medical centers; and investors and entrepreneurs at business conferences. I’ve popped the question at meetings of futurists and techno-optimists and gotten perhaps a doubling of people who want to live to 150 — less than I would have thought for these groups.

Rarely, however, does anyone want to live forever, although abolishing disease and death from biological causes is a fervent hope for a small scattering of would-be immortals.

In my talks, I go on to describe some highlights of cutting-edge biomedical research that might influence human life span.

For instance, right now drug companies are running clinical trials on new compounds that may have the “side effect” of extending life span. These include a drug at Sirtris, part of GlaxoSmithKline, that is being developed to treat inflammation and other diseases of aging. Called SRT-2104, this compound works on an enzyme called SIRT1 that, when activated, seems to slow aging in mice and other animals. It may do the same thing in humans, though this remains to be proven.

“Many serious attempts are being made to come up with a pill for aging,” said Dr. Sierra, though he suspects that there will not be a single anti-aging pill, if these compounds end up working at all. “It will be a combination of things.”

For over a decade, scientists also have experimented with using stem cells — master cells that can grow into different specialized cells — to replace and repair tissue in the heart, liver and other organs in animals. Some researchers have succeeded in also using them in people. The researchers include the urologist Anthony Atala of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, who has grown human bladders and urethras from stem cells that have been successfully transplanted into patients.

But another stem cell pioneer, James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, believes that stem cell solutions will be a long time coming for more complex organs. “We’re a long way from transplanting cells into a human brain or nervous system,” he said.

ANOTHER intervention that might thwart the impact of aging is bionics: the augmentation or replacement of biological functions with machines. For years cardiac pacemakers have saved and extended the lives of millions of people. More recent devices and machine-tooled solutions have restored hearing to thousands who are deaf and replaced damaged knees and hips. Physicians use brain implants to help control tremors brought on by Parkinson’s disease. Researchers also are working on a wide range of other machine fixes, from exoskeletons that protect joints to experimental devices that tap into the brain activity of paralyzed patients, allowing them to operate computers using thought.

Curiously, after learning about these possibilities, few people wanted to change their votes. Even if I asked them to imagine that a pill had been invented to slow aging down by one-half, allowing a person who is, say, 60 years old to have the body of a 30-year-old, only about 10 percent of audiences switched to favoring a life span of 150 years.

Overwhelmingly the reason given was that people didn’t want to be old and infirm any longer than they had to be, even if a pill allowed them to delay this inevitability.

Others were concerned about a range of issues both personal and societal that might result from extending the life spans of millions of people in a short time. These included everything from boredom and the cost of paying for a longer life to the impact of so many extra people on planetary resources and on the environment. Some worried that millions of healthy centenarians still working and calling the shots in society would leave our grandchildren and great-grandchildren without the jobs and opportunities that have traditionally come about with the passing of generations.

Long-lifers countered that extending healthy lives would delay suffering, possibly for a very long time. This would allow people to accomplish more in life and to try new things. It would also mean that geniuses like Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein might still be alive. Einstein, were he alive today, would be 133 years old.

That’s assuming that he would want to live that long. As he lay dying of an abdominal aortic aneurysm in 1955, he refused surgery, saying: “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.”

David Ewing Duncan is a contributor to Science Times. This essay is adapted from his most recent e-book, “When I’m 164: The New Science of Radical Life Extension and What Happens If It Succeeds.”

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Still no “secret of longevity”

Since one of the premises in our novel “Rabbit in the Moon” is that a Chinese scientist in 1989 has actually found the secret of longevity, we are always interested in the results of current scientific research on the subject.

Starting in the 1980’s, researchers like the late Dr. Roy Walford  at UCLA, have hypothesized that eating a severely calorie restricted calories can prolong life. This was based on original work with rats done in the 1930’s. The idea became so popular, that many proponents of this theory began trying to extend their own lives by reducing their calorie intake to less than 1000 calories per day.

However, just last week, the results of a 25 year long National Institute on Aging sponsored project in which rhesus monkeys were fed diets restricting their calories by 30 percent as compared to a control group seems to have refuted this (at least in monkeys). The study, which was published online in the journal Nature showed that the skinny monkeys did not live any longer than those kept at more normal weights. Interestingly, monkeys put on the diet when they were older showed some improvement in lab tests such as cholesterol and blood sugar (males only) and triglycerides (both genders) However, the causes of death — cancer, heart disease — were the same in both the underfed and the normally fed monkeys.

Rafael de Cabo, lead author of the diet study, said he was surprised and disappointed because he had expected an outcome similar to that of a 2009 study from the University of Wisconsin which concluded that caloric restriction did extend monkeys’ life spans.

Unfortunately, in that Wisconsin project, the authors disregarded about half of the deaths among the monkeys studied, claiming they were not related to aging. If they had included all of the deaths, they would have had to conclude that there was no extension of life span.

The good news is that science prevails here – someone has a hypothesis; they set up an experiment to prove it; they publish the results regardless of the outcome (i.e. present the facts); and then other scientists try to replicate the study in order to be sure that the results are accurate.

Still, this does not mean that cutting calories to a reasonable level in order to improve health is not a good idea.

The researchers of this study plan to continue it until the youngest monkeys are 22 years old. While they recognize that the data seems to rule out any notion that a low-calorie diet will increase average life spans, they hope to find that the diet increases the animals’ maximum life span by keeping them healthier.

So stay tuned.

And in the meantime, read “Rabbit in the Moon” to learn Dr. NiFu Cheng’s secret of longevity!

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Life expectancy rises in the US

Good news! Without Dr. Ni-Fu Cheng’s immortality elixir (Rabbit in the Moon)  average life expectancy in the US has hit another high, rising above 78 years,  according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At the same time, infant mortality has hit a record low of 6.42 deaths per 1000 live births which is almost a 3 percent drop from 2008. Boys born in 2009 can expect to at least until age 75.5 while girls will live to 80.5. Reasons for this increased longevity is felt to be a result of better medical treatment, improved vaccination rates and decreases in smoking.

Read Rabbit in the Moon in hardback, eBook and Audiobook

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“Rabbit in the Moon”: Downside of Longevity

We began formulating our plot for our thriller “Rabbit in the Moon” with two “what if” questions: 1) what if someone had discovered a way to increase the normal human lifespan and 2) who would want such a discovery and what might they do to get their hands on it.

When we conceived of this premise, we, like our character Dr. Ni Fu-Cheng assumed that an elixir extending longevity could only be positive for society.  However, as we and Ni-Fu learned, there is a definite downside to a population in which its “elder-share” (i.e. the proportion of people over 65 versus those who are younger) is very high.

The good news is that without our fictional elixir, lifespan in America have increased by an average of 30 years since 1900, so that males born in 2008 can expect to live to 75; females can expect to live to be 81. Centenarians (those over 100) are the fastest growing group in the US, having increased to 96,548 in 2009 from 38,300 in 1990, according to the Census Bureau.

And it’s not just the US that is experiencing increased longevity. People worldwide are living longer. Suddenly, the total number of seniors is expanding faster than the number of youngsters. Although currently the world is evenly divided between those under age 28 and those over 28, by 2050 half of individuals living in developed countries will be seniors over age 60, the other half, children under age 15.

If increased lifespan is the good news, what is the bad news? It is that most societies experiencing this sweeping demographic shift have not made the kinds of economic and policy adjustments required to adapt to this change. That’s especially true for the US.

How for example, do we deal with the cost of promised pensions and health benefits if the number of workers needed to finance these benefits is outnumbered by the seniors they have to support?

One of the consequences of aging is the increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Experts estimate 115 million people worldwide living with this form of dementia by 2050. The cost of their care is soaring- just one of the budget busting negative consequences of increased longevity.

In “Rabbit in the Moon”, Dr. Ni-Fu Cheng worries about this very issue, asking his granddaughter Lili whether his elixir comes with a cost too high. “Even without the issue of overpopulation,” he tells her, “there is the question of the quality of those extra years. I have not found the key to immortality. Cells will still age. They’ll just do so more slowly. And for some individuals- say with Alzheimer’s disease or severe arthritis or terminal cancer-that means more years of suffering.” He also wonders about the loneliness of living without friends or family who have died before them.

Ultimately he decides that the world is not ready for his discovery.

In our real world, some countries like France are already curbing public benefits, raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, in order to maintain national solvency. One million people took to the streets in protest.  In the US, a few candidates running for office have suggested solutions from pension reform, changing the age of eligibility for Social Security age, to getting rid of Social Security altogether. The response from the electorate appears to be negative.

Bottom line: the cost of maintaining aging populations is a looming crisis that is not going away.

Michael W. Hodin, who is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and researches aging issues said in the New York Times recently, that its solution “will require a mass-scale collaborative response akin to the Manhattan Project or the space race.”

So read “Rabbit in the Moon” and let us know what you think.

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