When he heard that Britain's Queen Mother had died at 101, the News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch is reported to have responded, "An early death!" The diet and exercise conscious septuagenarian plans to be on the topside of the experts who say that the average Australian will live to be 100 by 2050.
Thanks to a complex web of modern innovations in clean water and sanitation, biomedical advances against infectious and parasitic diseases, and improved diets, the developed world has already seen its life expectancy rise by 50 per cent in the last century, exceeding 75 years today. In India, the life expectancy of 64 years may lag behind that of the developed countries but still represents a spectacular 178 per cent jump since 1901 when it was only 23 years.
• Enlarge the pension scheme to cover all elders
A position paper on the scientific goals for an ageing world presented at the 2007 conference on healthy living and longevity explains that people who remain physically and mentally functional beyond 100 prove that genes associated with the extension of healthy life already exist in the human genome. If you combine this with the recently found ability to reverse cellular ageing in the laboratory and the promise of stem cells to repair or replace damaged organs, it seems that science’s ability to extend youthful vigour through an extended lifespan is now a plausible goal. Dozens of people have already interred themselves in cryonic chambers, in the hope that technologies of the future will revive them to health.
And new scientific breakthroughs are proliferating. Just last month, the Nature Genetics journal reported the identification of naturally occurring processes allowing many genes to both slow ageing and protect against cancer in animal experiments. Cancer, significantly, is 100 times more likely to attack people at the age of 65 rather than 35.
Such science offends an ideologically diverse array of philosophers such as Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass, who say that things like the human genome project endanger the very essence of human nature. But they seem to be in the minority, as any layperson can judge by the commercial success of anti-ageing vitamin cocktails, the growing interest in botox injections and the more somber attention attracted by new treatments for age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s, which occur more frequently in older persons. A Business Week finding that the increased productivity and workforce participation of older Americans could add nine per cent to their country’s GDP by 2045 further underlines the good economics of extending healthy life.
Alzheimer’s and related dementias alone are expected to cost the US more than a trillion dollars a year by 2050, hence the push for making research into healthy ageing a major research priority. In India, where the 1.5 million affected people are likely to rise by 300 per cent by 2050 according to a Lancet study, we are woefully ill prepared to provide our elderly with mental health interventions. The courses on geriatric care recently initiated by the National Initiative on Care for Elderly however represent a step in the right direction.
But we need many more interventions of this nature, especially if we are to ensure that priority access to anti-ageing medical miracles is not restricted to the rich. Otherwise, even if Murdoch, backed by the best of doctors and dieticians, fulfills his vision of living beyond 100, most of his employees will be stuck with shorter and sicker lives.