Could you live to 200 - and would you want to?
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In the not too distant future, barring accidents and other catastrophes, will it be possible to live for hundreds of years? Some scientists certainly think so. Sheena Grant reports on the hunt for a ‘cure’ for ageing and gets the views of an East Anglian academic.
In 2015 professor of old-age medicine Rudi Westendorp wrote an article in which he predicted the first person to reach the age of 135 has already been born.
“Others in my field go further,” he continued, “declaring that we have already seen the birth of the first person who will live to 1,000. What’s more, it is entirely possible that this first ‘millenarian’ will remain in good health for much of their life span.”
This may sound like the stuff of science fiction fantasy but Prof Westendorp is far from a lone voice when it comes to predictions about human longevity.
Last year, Professor Stuart Kim, of Stanford University, California, said he thought some people living today would make the ripe old age of 200 while biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, a former Cambridge University student whose research focuses on whether regenerative medicine can prevent the ageing process, has predicted that within his own lifetime doctors would have the tools needed to ‘cure’ ageing by banishing disease and extending life indefinitely.
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He foresaw a time when people would go to their doctors for regular ‘maintenance’, including gene therapies, stem cell therapies, immune stimulation and a range of other advanced age-defying medical techniques to repair molecular and cellular damage before it can have a devastating effect.
In reality, no-one knows for sure how far and how fast life expectancy will increase in the future but we do know the trend is upwards, even if the rate of growth, in the UK at least, has slowed in recent years.
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Up until now, the world’s longest-living person on record is French woman Jeanne Calment , who died in 1997 at 122 years, 164 days. Currently, the oldest living person in the world is Japan’s Nabi Tajima, aged 117. Ipswich-born Olive Boar, who now lives in Felixstowe, celebrated her 113th birthday on September 29 last year. She is currently listed as the 18th oldest person in the world and the second oldest in the UK.
But as well as those who share the views of Dr de Grey and Prof Westendorp there are plenty of scientists who remain sceptical. After all, although more people are living longer and healthier lives, the reality is that most still don’t make it even into their 90s and, if they do, many are blighted by failing health that makes their final years increasingly difficult, both for them personally and for their families and the state to cope with.
For this reason, the prospect of living for hundreds of years may not be particularly attractive for some, even if it were possible.
In 2016 researchers in New York said they believed human beings have a maximum lifespan and it’s probably 115 years.
“Our data strongly suggests that the duration of life is limited,” Jan Vijg and colleagues wrote in their report, published in the journal Nature. “Improvements in survival with age tend to decline after age 100, and the age at death of the world’s oldest person has not increased since the 1990s. Our results strongly suggest that the maximum lifespan of humans is fixed and subject to natural constraints.”
That research, of course, doesn’t take into account the prospect of Aubrey de Grey’s prediction of a ‘cure’ for ageing being right.
Dr Alexei Maklakov, a lecturer in evolutionary biology at the University of East Anglia, who studies the biology of ageing, says there is already research which suggests the diabetes drug metformin and the immune suppressant drug rapamycin might slow some ageing processes. However, he is doubtful whether many of the various predictions on human lifespan are entirely correct.
“I don’t believe the data is there to say that human life is limited to 115 years,” he says. “But Aubrey de Grey’s predictions also sound far fetched to me on what we know today. It doesn’t have to be wrong. The things he says have a scientific basis. He just takes the optimistic approach.”
In evolutionary terms, adds Dr Maklakov, lifespan is not really important. “What matters (in evolutionary terms) is whether we will have a lot of descendants.”
Species that are naturally long-lived, such as bowhead whales, tend to be slow developing and maturing and have fewer offspring and Dr Maklakov sees parallels in how human societies might change should our lifespan grow significantly.
“If humans all live to be 100 years or more human life history will change,” he says. “It is not a given that the population will increase if everyone is happy and healthy at 80 or beyond.”
But whatever the future holds, that goal - that people age healthily - should be the primary aim of research, as far as he’s concerned.
“It is not easy to increase human life so dramatically,” he says. “The whole goal of this field should be to increase the number of healthy years in the second half of life. That would bring the most benefit to the most people.”