Are We Heading Into a Future Where Human Beings Live Until 200?

Inside Hook

A recent piece in The New York Times by acclaimed science writer Ferris Jabr investigates the one thing we all try not to think about: How much time do we have on this planet?

According to Jabr, there are two types of longevity theorists — pessimists and optimists. Pessimists believe that life span is finite. According to their thinking, we’ve already touched the ceiling on human life, at 115 to 120 years. Optimists, meanwhile, view life span as still unexplored and possibly unlimited. Humans, they say, could live for hundreds of years.

It sounds absurd. But there are a number of organisms here on Earth that have found ways to conquer death. Clonal tree colonies have been around for tens of thousands of years. Certain rare jellyfish are able to revert back to an earlier stage of their life cycle. And deep within the ground there are a number of microbes that have stuck around for millions of years.

The key to unlocking the potential of the human life span probably won’t be found in a jellyfish, but the creature’s survivability is one of several factors currently encouraging the optimist movement. Consider: the number of “supercentenarians” (people alive over 110) has steadily increased over the last few decades, and studies have indicated that the risk of death plateaus after 100 (statistically, you’re no more likely to die at 108 than 103).

Plus, there are geneticists actively working to make sure those years are worth living, by focusing not just on survivability, but vitality. Vanguard cellular research these days, pioneered by people like Dr. David Sinclair, is devoted to ridding the body of senescent cells, or even “resetting” cells back to their most youthful condition.

There’s also all the unknowns we can’t yet account for, but can only imagine, with environmental advancements in public health. By 2100, Jabr reports, there will be 25 million centenarians scattered across the world.

For so many people, that probably sounds like more than enough life. And there is real logistical and social concern about a swelling world — the population is fast approaching eight billion people — that can’t seem to get rid of its oldest generations. It’ll put a tremendous strain on the planet’s natural resources, of course, but it could also stand in the way of social progress. One ethics director pointed out to Jabr that if the World War I generation were still around, we might still be far from legalized gay marriage in this country.

Ultimately, the question scientists are interested in is not whether a bunch of people will start to push life expectancy up and live to old age, but how old that age could be. Is 150 within reach? 200? 1,000? Ironically, we likely won’t live long enough to find out. But stay positive, nonetheless — the optimists have some momentum.

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