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Road to immortality: why aren’t oldest humans getting older?
Dick Pelletier   Dec 10, 2012   Ethical Technology  

In the Broadway musical Fame, Carmen sings about wanting to live forever. Of course, this is not possible today, but many positive thinkers believe that in the near future, biotech breakthroughs, along with nanomedicine advances, could provide an indefinite lifespan; eliminating most causes of death.

Centenarians, people who have reached 100 years of age boast nearly 500,000 members worldwide; but supercentenarians, those 110 years and older, total just 65 as of this writing. Current title of the world's oldest person goes to Italian Dina Manfredini at 115. See Oldest Validated Supercentenarians.

Only seven people have made it past 115, including Jeanne Calment, the French woman who died in 1997 at age 122, the oldest human age ever recorded according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Why aren't the oldest living people getting older? The Millennium Project's 2012 State of the Future Report shows that most populations are living longer. Life expectancies in countries not ravaged by AIDS have been rising gradually for decades. Americans can expect to live 80 years today; 5 years longer than the average in 1990, plus many of today's 'boomers and seniors who enjoy good health are likely to achieve centenarian status. However today, reaching supercentenarian status and beyond is challenging.

Experts call this "rectangularization of the mortality curve." In 1990 Japan had 3,000 people 100 years or older, with the oldest being 114 years. By 2010, 44,000 hit the 100 mark; but the oldest was still 114.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear, scientists say, the odds of dying in any given year between the ages of 110 and 113 appear to be about one in two; but by age 114, the chances jump to two in three.

University of Texas Health Science Center professor Steve Austad sees the spike in mortality at age 114 as a statistical artifact. Today's oldest humans, Austad reminds us, grew up without many of the benefits of 20th century advances in nutrition and medicine. He believes that supercentenarians owe their longevity, more to freakish genes than perfect health; the 122-year-old Calment smoked for 96 years.

Artificial lung

Most anti-aging scientists believe that to break the maximum human age barrier will require new medical procedures that can slow or reverse; and eventually, stop the aging process completely.

Many now believe that stem cells represent the best remedy to eliminate aging. As we age, the stem cell reserves we are born with decline. Cells lose their ability to regenerate and repair tissue, causing our organs, muscles, skin, and immune structure to deteriorate. This progression opens the door for numerous diseases that attack our bodies and eventually bring about death.

Researchers have found that by replacing aging cells with new stem cells, many age-related diseases can be stopped in their tracks; and as a bonus, patients receiving stem cell treatments experience an increase in energy, vigor and strength. The body and mind actually become biologically younger.

Though more research is needed to realize all the hopes and dreams of this 'stem cell magic', progress is advancing exponentially; especially in areas of creating dissolvable housing systems (templates) that direct stem cells to grow into specific parts, such as hearts, livers, muscles, bones, eyes, skin, and teeth.

In addition, by 2020, experts predict that most of the world will shift towards preventative healthcare. Sensors will soon appear in clothing and inside bodies, detecting everything from cancer to an impending stroke or heart attack. This proactive approach will allow doctors to stop most diseases before they start.

Today, according to the National Institutes of Aging, 17 million Americans are between the ages of 75 and 85. That figure is expected to double by 2050. While centenarians may be a rarity today, Americans living beyond the age of 100 is expected to grow to 2.5 million by mid-century.

Anti-aging guru Aubrey de Grey believes the first person to achieve a 1,000 year lifespan has already been born. Can medical science stamp out aging and sickness in such a brief time? Although there are challenges to this optimism, positive futurists believe that with exponential advances in biotech research expected in the coming decades, an indefinite lifespan could be in store for all of us. Comments welcome.

Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.


Stem cells and bio-printing, together with nanotechnology and synthetic biology are promising avenues to explore. However, it is unlikely that a basic evolutionary process such as aging is going to be entirely and permanently controlled by these approaches alone. It is like trying to find treatments which permanently stop babies growing up.

Aging is an extension of a normal developmental mechanism which has an evolutionary aim: the survival of the species.  In order to outline ways that are likely to be effective we need to use other approaches, based on entropy and thermodynamics, mathematics and even philosophy.

I can see how “entropy and thermodynamics, mathematics and even philosophy” can help end the aging process, however, once the human genome is 100 percent simulated on a computer, once cells are simulated in real time with all parts working, one can imagine that you will then be able to simulate an organ, up to the entire body. Immense computing power will need to exist indeed, to simulate every atom, every compound, and proten, etc. Once that is accomplished we will be able to manipulate the body in such a way, on the computer, to design designer drugs, gene therapy, and full organ replacement to cater to the individual and masses.

  I envision an incredible future unfolding in the coming decades. Today’s healthcare advances are only the beginning.

  Futurists Ray Kurzweil and Institute for Molecular Manufacturing’s Robert Freitas believe that tiny medical nano-devices expected by late 2020s will provide radical upgrades to our bodies. “We won’t reengineer our bodies all at once”, Kurzweil says, “It will be an incremental process accomplished one benign step at a time over decades”.

    Today we prevent many diseases through nutrition and supplements, and we look forward to biotech and nanotech breakthroughs expected in the 2020s that will replace defective and aging organs with stem cell therapies, genetic engineering, and advanced nanomaterials.

    Kurzweil also predicts that in the coming decades, progress in cognitive sciences will enable non-biological intelligence to merge with our biological brains.

    As we learn more about our body, experts say we can engineer new systems with dramatic improvements. Freitas believes that by the 2030s, we could create artificial respirocytes that would allow us to hold our breath for 4 hours and sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath.

    Even more radical, with respirocytes providing extended access to oxygen, nanobots could remove carbon dioxide from our cells, which would eliminate the need for lungs. Without lungs, we would no longer require breathable air! This will give us incredible abilities. We could live in space and on other planets with little technology help.

    In his book, Fantastic Voyage, Kurzweil describes how we could reengineer our digestive system, enabling nanobots to deliver nutrients directly into our cells, eliminating the need for food. To implement this technology, we would wear a ‘nutrient belt’ loaded with millions of nutrient-bearing ‘bots, which would enter and leave the body through our skin.

    However, many may want to hang on to their food-eating pleasures, so scientists propose a special digestive tract to receive real food, but bar those nutrients from entering the blood stream. ‘Bots would convert this food into molecules and route it into the ‘nutrient belt’. This would allow us to eat anything we want – no harm, no foul.

    The next organ on our hit list is the heart, a remarkable machine, but one that is too often subject to failure. Freitas has designed a revolutionary nano-robotic blood cell system that he believes could eliminate the need for a heart.

    This configuration would also eliminate need for kidneys, bladder, liver, lower esophagus, stomach, intestines, bowel, and skeleton. We will need to keep our skin, sex organs, mouth and upper esophagus for touching, talking and eating, but scientists believe we could also replace these parts with an exotic ‘nano-skin’, which offers greater protection from physical force and extreme temperatures, and may even provide more enjoyable sex and touch.

    The most amazing application of this future includes replacing the brain. Scientists hope to reverse-engineer the brain by mid 2020s or so, and with efforts to capture thought at moment of creation underway at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, forward-thinkers believe we can one day replace neurons with materials that process information at supercomputer speeds.

    Will this ‘magical future’ happen? Forward-thinkers see these radical advances as our next evolutionary step, which could become reality by 2050. Comments welcome.

Some research I have been doing recently suggests that the biggest contributor to poor health at this present time is not our living habits. Whether we exercise, smoke or eat healthy or unhealthy has an aggregate effect of about 20% on the likelihood of being healthy or not. The largest indicator of health is one’s level of wealth. Poverty has a 40 - 50% effect on whether one can expect to be healthy and long lived.

While clothes that monitor our day to day health might be cool, I don’t think they will have a huge effect on global health since the people who would need them won’t be able to afford them. What we need is a multifaceted plan to address health concerns, but also to address poverty that is the single greatest preventable cause of death that faces us at this time.

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