If you think about it, we really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the process of aging.
What is there to think about? Apart from maintaining common-sense diets and regular exercise, not to mention a nip here and a tuck there, there’s not all that much we can do about aging. We wait for it to happen, and on occasion stop to marvel at how well our younger selves are preserved—in still and moving pictures.
Beyond a routine birthday, we particularly celebrate a 90-something relative, and justifiably are in awe when a remarkably sturdy specimen among us reaches 100, the Mount Olympus of aging.
Here is something to think about, though: If aging were considered a form of disease—or the cause of disease—what kind would it be: Curable? Inoperable? Treatable? Reversible? OK, we know, ultimately, aging is terminal, but can aging, like cancer, go into remission? Can we slow it down—control its process?
There is a fast-growing universe of scientists and investors in research who believe we can.
What got me going about this topic is a news story I stumbled across on HBO. Produced by media brand Axios, the segment is titled “The 100-year Career.”
If that’s not enough to grab your attention, this sound bite from the show will: “The first person to live to 150 years old probably already has been born.” (Even then, we’ll still lose the longevity race to the giant tortoise, which has been known to mosey along for up to 200 years.)
The quote about living to 150 is from David Sinclair, a Harvard Medical School professor of genetics who has dedicated his professional life to studying how we can master aging instead of being a slave to it. A popular new field known as geroscience focuses on how aging causes disease.
Another term that has emerged in the study of longevity is healthspan. Where lifespan measures the number of years that elapse between first breath and last, healthspan refers to quality of life, or the number of healthy, functional years a person lives. The science journal Endpoints, published by healthcare marketer Elysium Health, notes that “As human lifespan has plateaued, scientists have become much more interested in extending healthspan.”
The World Health Organization (WHO), part of the United Nations, recently added aging to its official publication that codifies diseases. The organization says that “In a few years, the number of people 60 and over will outnumber those under age 5. By 2050, nearly a quarter of the world’s population will be over 60.”
Axios cites a New York Times article that says, “the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population is between 85 and 94.” U.S. average life expectancy today is just shy of 79 years, compared to under 50 years at the start of the 20th century.
All this data about living longer raises all kinds of questions and challenges. The Axios segment on HBO makes the point that a person who lives well past 100 will need to continue earning a steady income to sustain a much longer healthspan than we now know.
That societal shift already seems to be in play.
In less than 20 years, people 65 and older will outnumber people 18 and younger. It’s said that older employees will be in greater demand and will be working to 75 or later. Even in the short term, a few years from now, people over 55 will comprise a quarter of the workforce, more than doubling the 12 percent portion they represented 25 years ago.
What about education? If a healthy portion of today’s youngest people will be living to 100 or more, and working most of that time, is it realistic for formal education to stop in the late teens or early 20s. The experts say future workers, whose life expectancy may surpass 100, will need to be re-educated mid-career and possibly again later in life, if they are to maintain the requisite skills to be hired or self-employed. At that point, the time-honored retirement age of 65 sounds both laughable and unrealistic.
In general, David Sinclair told Axios, “the arc of our lives must be re-examined. Future jobs will be filled by healthy, vibrant people over 75. Women will be able to have children into their 40s with new technologies, allowing them to postpone starting a family.”
Here’s a handy list that today’s—and tomorrow’s—young parents might want to tuck away. Based on a study titled “Future of Skills: Employment in 2030,” by education publisher Pearson, these are what it calls “the top 10 skills that a child born today should learn in a basic education”:
• Learning strategies
• Social perceptiveness
• Sociology and anthropology
• Education and training
• Fluency of ideas
• Active learning
For more resources on this topic, see Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (lifespan.io), International Longevity Alliance (longevityalliance.org), and Longevity (longevitylive.com).