How long are you going to live?

A few years ago I lectured in a European workshop about global risks. Before me lectured one of the World Health Organization (WHO) chief officers, who presented a very interesting graph.

What he showed was basically that life expectancy is expected to keep on rising all over the world, so that by the year 2100 it’s going to reach 85–90 years in high-income countries.

Well, I was pretty astounded about that forecast, which seemed to me extremely pessimistic. I talked with him over lunch, and asked whether this forecast included all of the technologies currently being developed in university labs. I asked how the forecasts would be affected by –

  • The development of nano-robots that could hold back cancer, coronary thrombosis (heart attack), strokes and other diseases from inside the body;
  • Sophisticated techniques for genetic engineering, that could produce vaccines against cancer and other diseases;
  • Tissue engineering techniques that could repair entire tissues – sometimes while they’re still in the body;
  • Artificial intelligence engines that would provide real-time medical monitoring and consultation much more accurate than that of today’s best medical doctors;

I’m paraphrasing his answer a little, since it all happened a few years ago, but the gist of what he said was –

“No, we can’t take all that into account. The model can’t acknowledge medical breakthroughs. We know that such breakthroughs will have a dramatic impact, but we just don’t know when they’ll emerge from the lab. But I can tell you that if even 15% of the research currently being done in biomedical labs succeeds, then the forecasts will change dramatically.”

So – there is simply no good forecast that will answer the basic question of how long we’re supposed to remain alive in this century. It is entirely conceivable – indeed, even likely, as that WHO official admitted – that sometime in the next few decades, a ‘perfect storm’ of medical breakthroughs will work together to dramatically halt aging and put a stop to most old-age diseases.

There are even some reputable scientists (like George Church, who is sort of the Thomas Edison of genetic engineering) who believe we’ll be able to reverse aging within a decade.

Personally, I think it’ll take much longer than that – but even if this breakthrough comes in the next few decades, many of us should still be around and enjoy it.

Good luck!

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This post was originally written as an answer at Quora. You can read more of my thoughts about the future and my answers to questions on these topics in my channel there.
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2 thoughts on “How long are you going to live?

  1. Actually, how long WE are going to live is not 80-90. These graphs show life expectancy at birth. That is, they take into account all the things that can kill a child before he reaches 1 year, or 5 years. (Or rather, they take the number of children who died at that age.) More of those in developing countries, of course. But WE who read this, have passed those landmarks.
    As an extreme example of this, a while ago I found the following info (can’t find the source now, so don’t quote me on the details): About half the free children born in ancient Rome died before age 5. But about half of those who lived past age 5, got to live past 60. (Estimates calculated from grave inscriptions, I think.) So in that case, life expectancy at birth is significantly different from life expectancy at 5.

    And looking at it from the other side, how much do WE stand to benefit from all those medical developments, as opposed to children who will be born when those developments are already there?
    As an example, the Polio vaccine affected the life expectancy of children born after its invention, who got to be vaccinated. It did not affect the life expectancy of the adults who lived at the time.

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    1. You’re right – I did not bother explaining the difference between life expectancy and life span, but I didn’t think it very relevant to the point made in the article.

      As for the children – they’re bound to benefit more from some of the medical developments (particularly things like vaccines), but if we assume that biological limitations set a limited life span (which seems likely considering certain evidence from recent years), then we’ll need some dramatic biomedical technologies to break through that barrier – and adults will probably be able to benefit from these just as well as children.

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