It used to be the stuff of science fiction, the idea that we could 'cheat death' and live well past what we now think of as a natural human lifespan.
But changes in science and medicine over the past ten years may well turn science-fiction into science-fact.
And, as futurist Sonia Arrison sees it -- this whole 'immortality' race is bound to have some
consequences we need to be prepared for. Her book, 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything lays out the lifespan conundrum in engaging detail.
As Arrison explains it -- innovation is coming fast in a number of important realms:
"Scientists all over the world are working on growing different parts -- hearts, lungs," she said, "Using a patient's own stem cells, new bladders and windpipes have already been grown and successfully implanted in human subjects. With new 3Dprinter technology, these organs are being reproduced on demand."
"Tissue engineering, gene therapy, and personalized drug development will extend not only our lives, but also our health." And while it may seem daunting, even terrifying, to try and calculate the cost of living longer, Arrison says the math works in our favor -- simply put, 'health equals wealth.' Arrison reports that gains in life expectancy from 1970 to 2000 added about $3.2 trillion per year to national wealth. Health generates wealth.
Of course, the planet is straining under the environmental pressure of all the humans already here, and the volume of waste they're creating. But Arrison says that the technology we're discovering to extend life will have the benefit of giving us new tools to turn waste into useful and recyclable resources. Says Arrison: "Using DNA sequencing and synthesis, scientists can re-engineer organisms like bacteria, yeast, and algae, thereby creating mini chemical factories that can turn all sorts of waste, including paper waste and carbon dioxide, into fuel."
Aging is the result of natural systems breaking down. But already, health is very much a man/machine partnership. Humans are living longer as they have artificial hearts implanted, bone hips replaced with engineer joints, and human limbs replaced by increasingly human-like artificial ones. We rely on devices to make our lives longer and more livable.
But will all of the coming science make life longer for everyone, or just the wealthy? Arrison doesn't pull punches here. "The rich always get access to new technologies first," she says. "The important question is, really, how long will it take for longevity technologies to become widespread."
And Arrison's evidence says that the gap for technology to reach the masses is narrowing. Says Arrison: "it took forty-six years for one quarter of the population to get electricity and thirty-five years for the telephone to get that far. It took only sixteen years, however, for one quarter of American households to get a personal computer, thirteen years for a cell phone, and seven years for Internet access, a promising trend for those who wish to see the widespread use of longevity technologies because health technologies are fast becoming information technologies."
The book is chock full of stories featuring new medical and technological innovation. Fast moving, and quickly evolving -- we're seeing science grow new limbs, print internal organs like a Xerox machine, and build body parts like legs, eyes, and ears. Faster, stronger, better.
So -- just how far away is the 150 year lifespan? It seems that politics, not science, may be the critical factor in how quickly innovation makes its way out of the lab and into the local doctor's office or operating room. For example, stem cell research needs to remain funded and legal. Conversely, the Department of Defense is spending 'a quarter of a billion dollars funding regenerative medicine', says Arrison. That's certain to speed up the timeline. She says she expects to see 150 within her lifetime.