Why our kids will reach the ripe old age of . . . 150
Ed Power on the new technology that is making us live longer
Published 26/02/2010 | 05:00
Spare a thought for Ireland's post-millennium generation. As adults, they will be saddled with the mother of all national debts. Climate change will probably have reached disaster movie proportions by the time they hit middle age. They will grow up traumatised by childhood memories of Jedward.
Still, there is one glimmer of sunshine amid the gloom -- according to experts, those born in Ireland in the year 2010 have a realistic chance of reaching the grand old age of... 150. The infants of today, it is claimed, may well live up to 70 years longer than current average life-spans as science pushes back the boundaries of human life.
The idea of old age stretching far past 100 sounds like something from a science fiction movie. However, scientists say ongoing medical breakthroughs promise to completely redefine our idea of what it is to be elderly. In an article published in medical journal The Lancet several months ago, the Danish Aging Research Centre said that, as a consequence of rising living standards, there is a realistic likelihood most Westerners born since 2000 will make it to age 100 at least (so long as rising obesity problems across the US and Europe are kept in check).
"Very long lives are not the distant privilege of remote future generations," wrote one of the authors of the study, Kaare Christensen. "Very long lives are the probable destiny of most people alive now in developed countries."
In addition to benefiting from higher living standards, many specific new developments have the potential to make the ripe old age of 150 a realistic goal.
Firstly, the medical community is taking huge steps forward in the field of prosthetics. A few decades hence, a non-functioning body part or organ will not longer be necessarily a threat to one's life.
In particular, the science of bone prosthetics is advancing rapidly, raising the possibility that future generations of old people may be spared arthritis, aching joints and impaired mobility.
Rather than having to rely on a walking stick or wheelchair, they will be able to simply book into a bone prosthetics clinic and come out all spruced up and nimble.
Similar breakthroughs will mean deafness and blindness are no longer an issue as we creep into our 80s and 90s. Artificial lenses will make eye-replacement surgery feasible and progression in laser technology means deterioration in vision can be halted and reversed.
"The good news is people will generally be functioning well -- it's more like they're postponing their aging process," said the Danish team.
At a cellular level, meanwhile, researchers are along the road of being able to grow and harvest body tissue by turning on and off genetic triggers in stem cells. They have already achieved this in mice, growing new skin cells from modified stem cells. Should advancements proceed at the present rate, "organ farms" may be only a few decades away.
Furthermore, experts increasingly believe that, by cutting back on our food intake, we could extend our life-span. In Boston, nutritionists have produced evidence that lowering your calorie intake by 25pc might help you live longer.
"I feel better and lighter and healthier," said one of the participants in the study. "But if it could help you live longer, that would be pretty amazing."
At first glance, the idea that eating less could help you carry on longer sounds counter-intuitive. However, experiments on lab rats showed that those whose diets were restricted lived 50pc longer.
More interestingly, work with rhesus monkeys indicates that, by cutting back on calories, we are less susceptible to disease. Monkeys on a restricted diet suffered a much lower incidence of diabetes, heart and brain disease and cancer.
Most intriguing of all is our deepening understanding of the process of aging itself. While factors such as smoking, stress and our level of regular exercise all have a bearing on the rate at which we grow older, geneticists have now uncovered a genetic link to cellular aging.
Studies of human chromosomes have revealed that, at either end of the DNA strands contained in every cell, are protective caps called telomeres. Each time a cell dies and replicates itself, these caps shorten -- the analogy offered by scientists is of plastic tips fraying at the end of shoelaces.
As telomeres grow shorter, the evidence is that we become more vulnerable to age-related ailments such as heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. If researchers can find a way to stop this decline, humanity may have arrived at a way to turn 'off' the aging process.
For kids today, aging may eventually be something you can halt or even reverse. Mind you, they'll still have to overcome those childhood memories of Jedward.