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Anti-ageing research makes rapid advance

The science of anti-ageing is likely to achieve major breakthroughs in coming decades that will sharply increase life expectancy, a leading British academic predicts.

india Updated: Aug 04, 2006 21:09 IST

The science of anti-ageing is likely to achieve major breakthroughs in coming decades that will sharply increase life expectancy, a leading British academic predicts.

By as early as 2036, the average lifespan in the developed world may be decades longer than it is now, Cambridge-based biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey told Reuters in a recent interview.

That's up from 2004, when the average British male who lived to 65 could expect to reach 84, according to the Government Actuary's Department.

De Grey said decades-longer lives may change traditional patterns of family life, careers, retirement, education and child-raising and force radical changes to pensions.

"These are things that people with expertise with financial planning need to take on board now. Industry has been taking for granted that if state pension ages change at all, it will be only by a small amount," he said.

Life expectancy has risen sharply in Britain. On average, a man aged 65 could expect to live for another 12 years in 1950. This is expected to rise to 21.7 years by the middle of the century, according to Government Actuary's Department figures in a report cited by the Pension Commission panel of experts.

Life expectancy is higher for women but is increasing at a slower pace, the panel said.

Private and state pension systems are already creaking under the impact of an ageing population and a declining birth rate. British companies have cut pension benefits and shut pension plans to new recruits.

On Wednesday, consultants Lane Clark & Peacock said the total pension deficit of FTSE 100-listed companies fell only slightly in 2005 from 2004, despite the rising value of equities, in part because of expected rising longevity.

FICTION TO FACT?

Ultra-long lifespans are so far the stuff of science fiction, such as in Robert A. Heinlein's novel "Time Enough for Love", in which people live for hundreds of years.

But it is no longer just a dream that people may live decades longer than they do now, de Grey said.

The gerontologist said that while some people are sceptical, or even hostile, to the idea that the average lifespan will lengthen, scientific advances are likely to make this a reality.

As a result, lifestyles will change. People may increasingly retire from full-time work for several years, go to college and later re-enter the job market, he said.

The prospect of a longer life may affect peoples' willingness to take on risks such as serving in the army or practising extreme sports, he said.

"Longevity risk" -- the chance that people live longer than experts expect -- is now a regular topic in the pension industry because this risk is considered difficult to plan for.

Corporate pension funds have been turning to cutting-edge tools such as swaps to hedge risks on their portfolios, but to date coping with the risk of a higher-than-expected lifespan has proven a tough challenge for pension funds.

This risk was dubbed "the next big frontier for financial markets" by Professor Andrew Cairns of Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University in a speech last year.

People also underestimate how long they will live, bringing the risk that they do not save enough money for retirement, according to a study by the University of Nottingham last year.

OBESITY RISK

De Grey is editor-in-chief of peer-reviewed science journal Rejuvenation Research and has lectured to groups including Britain's Institute of Actuaries.

He became interested in the subject of anti-ageing in the early 1990s and said he had been surprised to find that few biologists were investigating the topic.

"I like to do things where I can make a difference in the world, and this was clearly the biggest possible difference."

Some researchers say, however, that the trend toward longer a longer lifespan may falter due to rising obesity levels in some nations.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago say that within 50 years, obesity will have shortened the U.S. average lifespan of 77.6 years by at least two to five years, according to a report on cnn.com in March last year.