The idea that you might one day be able to take a pill and slow down the ageing process seems like science fiction.
But it’s actually closer at hand than you might think. Technologically, we’re living in an incredible era, and it is becoming increasingly clear that such feats are within reach. By 2030, it is likely that a significant minority of individuals will be taking substances shown in the lab to extend lifespan. That’s remarkable.
Of course, whether the first wave of innovations will work in humans remains to be seen. We’re going to be waiting a long time for data, particularly if the interventions are successful. But early research in animals is promising. Scientists now have dozens of candidate compounds that appear to lengthen subjects’ lives in one way or another.
We’re not just looking at a brute increase in the length of life, either. Researchers are finding that when they increase lifespan, they also increase healthspan, meaning that animals spend more of their lives in a disease-free state.
Mice are a case in point. If you administer the drug rapamycin, they live around 10 to 20 percent longer. At the same time, their period of morbidity (the time when they are sick) contracts from about 20 percent of their lifetime, to just 10 percent.
When COVID-19 first hit, the worry was that it would put the brakes on research because scientists couldn’t get into their labs. But that doesn’t appear to be the case at all. In fact, we saw more publications in the field in 2021 than at any other point in history.
Big money has also seen the opportunity and is looking to capitalize on it. Jeff Bezos is ploughing billions of dollars into companies that are looking for the holy grail – the secret elixir – that will allow him and, hopefully, millions of others to live significantly longer.
Google has been in this space for a long time too. Originally, its idea with Calico Labs was to look for ways to chip away at the root of diseases. Over the last decade or so, it has been discovered that the best way to do that is to tackle the biggest risk factor of them all: aging.
In fact, there are billionaires of all stripes all over the world looking at how they can push the frontiers of life to prolong their existence. Living to 120 years instead of the usual 80 could potentially give them another forty years of compound interest, allowing their wealth to balloon even more, assuming the world doesn’t end.
If you’re not a billionaire but you want to live longer, what can you do? Well the good news is that many of the items that appear to extend life are free, or almost free.
While complicated chemical names, like GHRP-2, IGF-1, FOXO and sirtuins dominate the literature, you don’t need to worry about these. All regular, non-technical people need to do is focus on the basics – things you probably already know.
Just adopting four health behaviours, not smoking, eating healthily, taking regular exercise, and sleeping well, appear to lengthen life by around 15 years above the average. In other words, if you engage in all these activities, you can bust through the average life expectancy of 80 and go all the way to 95.
If you want to go beyond that, you can. Eating only whole plant foods, adding more herbs and spices to your diet and fasting every once in a while could improve results even more.
And that’s not to mention all the supplements that are out there. We have NAD boosters, compounds, such as fisetin from strawberries, that kill defective cells, spermidine, oral hyaluronic acid and even certain types of seaweed proven to activate longevity pathways.
In the West, the view is still very much that we live in an overpopulated world and that we need to control the number of people. However, if you fast-forward the clock a couple of decades, you’ll discover that it’s the precise opposite. It may actually be the case that we don’t have enough people because of collapsing birth rates. Globally, we’re already close to the replacement ratio of 2.1 children per woman, and that’s likely to fall further as India and Africa see their fertility rates plummet.
Dealing with ageing, therefore, will become the social imperative of the era. By the middle of the 21st century, there will be many more older people, and fewer workers supporting them. Economics will stagnate, and standards of living might fall, even as technology improves.
However, if older people can remain healthy and productive, it averts the problem. They can continue with their careers for potentially decades to come, perhaps working into their 90s, depending on how the science progresses. This would slow the population decline and mean that, by the end of the century, there may be more people alive than there are today.
Worries about the environment and pollution also correlate with population. Many people imagine that with fewer people, the impact of humanity on the planet would be less.
At face value, this is true. However, the age structure of the population will likely counteract any possible gains. For instance, when a society is young, it is also quite innovative. People come up with new ideas, and many of those help to solve environmental problems. The West is much cleaner than it was, and continues to improve.
However, when populations get older, they become less innovative. More resources go towards basic care services, with less left over for dealing with the environmental consequences of human activity. Perhaps in the very long-term, things will be better for the planet, but it might take hundreds of years to get there.
Longevity research is ramping up. And if its products prove to be as effective as antibiotics, then we’re in for a wild ride in the decades ahead.