Who wants to live forever?
Credit: Getty/Niedring/Drentwett   

When you’re next in London, stop by Westminster Abbey and visit the tomb of Old Parr, who died in 1635 at the age of 152.

If you’re sceptical of that claim, so was William Harvey, the celebrated physician (he discovered the circulation of the blood) who conducted Tom Parr’s post-mortem. On the other hand, when I shared Parr’s story recently with a leading ageing researcher, she replied, “It could be true, you know; I wish I had some of his DNA.”

Slowing the ageing process is something that has long preoccupied humanity. But should it be a top priority for our scientists? Aubrey de Grey, the researcher and activist, likes to say things like: “Ageing is just like smoking: it’s really bad for you.” He wants it to receive the same focus we place on cancer and heart disease. But who exactly will benefit?

The rich have always lived longer, and evidence is mounting that the rich-poor divide is getting wider every year. According to one recent study, the wealthiest 1% of American men actually live 15 years longer than the poorest 1%. And the gap just grew by around 2.5 years at the top; at the bottom it barely shifted.

What’s more surprising is to find the same trend on this side of the Atlantic. The UK’s insurance industry’s Longevity Science Panel report that a boy born today in the top 20% will outlive one born in the bottom 20% by 8.4 years. That gap has widened 1.2 years since 2001. But the most startling recent study focused on literacy. The life expectancy gap between boys born in the least and most literate parts of the country is a staggering 26 years.

For the UK, with its commitment to universal free healthcare and focus on equity of social opportunity, these data suggest an embarrassing failure of policy and practice. Each year that passes marks a step further into inequality at the core, between who lives and who dies.

What’s more, this process is likely to speed up. Expensive techniques could enable the wealthy to live much longer. For them, becoming a centenarian could be the norm; perhaps living even longer lives than that of Jeanne Calment, the world’s oldest documented person, who died at 122.

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This is not just talk. There’s evidence that the ageing process is reversible in both mice and human cells – enough to persuade investors to jump in. Google has put $1.5 billion into a firm called Calico, which hopes to extend the human life span by “coming up with a breakthrough as important, and as useful, as the transistor”. Its research guru is Cynthia Kenyon, perhaps the world’s most famous age research scientist. In the words of the MIT Technology Review, “Calico is, in effect, an elite university research group housed within a corporate bunker.”

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Facebook board member Peter Thiel aren’t far behind – they’re funding Unity Biotechnology, which aims to make a person functional and free of the diseases associated with aging for as long as possible. Meanwhile, Ray Kurzweil, the ultimate tech optimist who has long proclaimed the coming “singularity”, reckons “we will reach a point around 2029 when medical technologies will add one additional year every year to your life expectancy”. If he’s right, in 11 years’s time we shall essentially stop ageing.

Which leaves us facing two sets of challenges. First, what to do about the current situation – the growing inequity in health outcomes. And, second, how to prepare for a future of much bigger advances in longevity – for those who can pay.

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Back in 1948, the year the NHS was founded, the global community decided that health was a human right. According to the Constitution of the World Health Organisation (WHO): “The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.” Everyone should have an “equal opportunity” to attain it. Not just a ‘right’ to access treatment – the right to go and see a doctor – but to achieving a standard of health.

Successive governments, despite social equity rhetoric, have failed to prevent the poor from falling further behind in the race for life. There is a lot more to healthcare, but longevity is a key criterion for success. Politicians and the press tend to be distracted by waiting lists and A&E delays – legitimate concerns, like chronic underfunding. But outcomes are the key. I’m doubtful the Longevity Science Panel numbers will feature on battle buses at the next General Election, but perhaps they should.

Then what of the longer term? If the kind of research Google and others are investing in pays off, we can imagine more and more people being able to afford to slow their ageing process, so they can continue living active lives beyond their 100th birthday – perhaps decades beyond.

These scenarios have been explored by Sonia Arrison, in 100 Plus, in which she sketches out how life-extending discoveries will change our social and economic worlds. Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, in their The 100 Year Life consider how to make your centenary a blessing not a curse, and in his latest book New Methuselahs the philosopher John Jefferson assesses the ethical agenda – deciding, on balance, that life extension is a good thing, while proposing a policy to mitigate over-population.

But not everyone wants to live a lot longer, even if they could. In a detailed poll of American attitudes, the Pew Trusts asked if people would want treatments “that slowed the aging process … and allowed the average person to live decades longer, to at least 120 years.” A majority of 56% said no.

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The development of a growing class of centenarians raises many challenges. Over-population; impact on pensions – funding for retirement is already squeezed as longevity assumptions shift. Since the idea is to prolong healthy lives, people could continue to work longer. But that underlines the potential impact of more fit elderly people needing jobs – just as the development of AI/robotics already threatens ‘full employment’. Advocates push back that our economies and social lives have flourished during the doubling of global life expectancy since 1900 and can be expected to adjust when it happens again.

From a policy perspective, if we are committed to “the highest attainable standard of health” as a human right, then we have two options in preparing for a costly jump in longevity: prevent it, or work to share the benefits.Simply outlawing life extension would be difficult. Other countries would need to agree. Age-slowing therapies would most likely be introduced incrementally, in any case. And any ban would lead to an inevitable illicit market. But controls to ensure equity could play a part.

In parallel, we need a policy of sharing the benefits, through a combination of government subsidy/provision and limiting patent protection so cheaper, generic, versions of therapies could be quickly available.

The Harvard age researcher David Sinclair is not the only expert to suggest that the first person to live to 150 has already been born. I hope they get buried in Westminster Abbey, alongside Old Parr, while there’s still room.