Printed: 2020-07-15

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Road to immortality: why aren’t oldest humans getting older?

Dick Pelletier

Ethical Technology

December 10, 2012

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.


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