Why We Should Look Forward to Living to 120 and Beyond

Advances in medical technology, one expert says, give us fewer reasons to fear living past 100

By Alex Zhavoronkov, Ph.D.
Originally Posted On December 23, 2013

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Alex Zhavoronkov, Ph.D., the author of The Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biomedicine Will Transform the Global Economy, is the director and a trustee of the Biogerontology Research Foundation, a UK-based think tank supporting aging research worldwide.

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In the near future, advances in biomedical technology will enable citizens of developed countries to live dramatically longer lives. The revolution in biomedicine stands poised to eclipse even the social and economic effects of information technology.

  1. More than $1 trillion has been spent on biomedical research over the past 20 years. These investments should soon start yielding longevity dividends.
  2. The number of scientists working on extending the life span worldwide has increased exponentially as computer and communications technologies have entered the mainstream and China and India have joined the race.
  3. The life spans of some laboratory animals have already been extended more than tenfold.
  4. Innovations have already started: vital organs have been grown from patients' own cells and several stem-cell therapies are being proven.
  5. Cancer survival rates have increased steadily over the past few years. A diagnosis is no longer a certain death sentence.
  6. Advances in laboratory diagnostics and biometrics are already providing valuable insight into disease prevention.
  7. Fast-food outlets have started offering healthier dishes and displaying caloric content and smoking rates in developed countries have declined.
 
Many people would not interpret these seven facts as a single trend leading to dramatic increases in life expectancy because the long-term effects are so unpredictable. But just two decades ago, nobody could imagine the possibility of the technology we use daily now.

The possibility of a radically longer life is very real.
 
These perceptions are fostered by researchers who look at historic trends and project only marginal increases, or even decreases, in future life expectancy. These researchers predict that recent behavioral changes, like high-calorie diets and sedentary lifestyles, as well as pollution and other environmental factors, will outweigh life-extending advances in biomedical sciences. But the past 20 years have demonstrated that those relying on historical trends to make predictions about science and technology are often proven wrong.
 
The Benefits of Becoming "Ageless"
 
There is a big difference between thinking "I am 50, but I feel like 30 and expect to live to 80" and "I am 50, but I expect to be healthy until 150." As our life spans extend, we will need to change our approach to getting older.
 
What does it mean to age without getting "old"? The brilliant psychologist Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, was one of the first to propose and develop a lifespan theory of motivation called Socioemotional Selectivity Theory. (Read Dr. Carstensen's Next Avenue column, Why We Live Longer — and Can Still Live Better.) According to Dr. Carstensen, our lifespan time horizons affect our motivation, behavior, risk taking and cognitive processing. For example, individuals with shorter perceived life expectancies will divert resources from investments intended for the future to pursue short-term goals and pleasures.
 
There are clear benefits, then, in proactively stretching your expected life horizon to a number much greater than your can currently imagine. It will probably not only make you look and feel younger, but also induce the behavioral patterns of someone more youthful, enabling you to interact with younger and older people without barriers and remain productive longer than your peers.

Another benefit of setting the bar toward 120, 150 or beyond is minimizing financial risk. This will most certainly lead more of us to postpone retirement and set a course for continuous improvement, lifelong learning and active career planning.
 
There is definitely no harm in stretching your "ageometer" to 150. Most likely technology will catch up and exceed your expectations. The worst that can happen is you will die earlier feeling much younger than you ever thought you would.