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Megatrends for this decade – IV

Lifespan, on average, has been growing amazingly fast in the last century. The graphic shows the life expectancy at birth in the five continents and the world average. Image credit: Our World in Data. Data sources: Riley, Clio Infra and UN

3. Increased lifespan

Humankind lifespan has been stable, around 30 years was life expectancy for most part of the recorded history, probably less in the hundreds of thousands of years we have no written record. This relatively short life span didn’t mean that a few people couldn’t live longer, we have credible written report of people living into their 60ies and even 80ies but that was the exception.

Snapshots of the world in the 1800, 1950 and 2015 showing life expectancy. Image credit: Our World in Data

This changed in the middle of the XIX century in Europe and in the Americas and at the beginning of the XX century in Asia, whilst Africa had to wait till the 1930ies to see the beginning of an increase in the llife span.

Although we often associate this increase with the progress in medicine, the reality is that the first increase in lifespan, until some 50-80 years ago was the result of clean water. It is only in the last decades that medicine has become a significant factor in the lengthening of humankind lifespan.

In the figure on the side the world map rendering with colour based on expected lifespan in 1800, 1950 and 2015: the redder /yellowish the colour the shorter the expected lifespan.

In the last decades medicine has become an important factor in extending our lifespan.

Peter Diamandis reasoning in formulating this megatrend is that in the coming years medicine will be able to extend our life, and he predicts that by the end of this decade we will see a 10 years increase. That is a daring prediction that might be difficult to achieve, particularly in in those areas where we have reached an expected lifespan exceeding 80 years. I have no doubt that in Africa and in several developing Countries in Asia, where the lilfespan is in the 6oies and 70ies, we will see a 10 year increase, but moving from 80 to 90 or 85 to 95 (on average!) is way more trickier.

In his blog, Peter identifies in the progress of technology applied to healthcare this outcome. In particular he lists these technologies as the ones that will have a crucial impact in this decade:

  • Stem cell supply restoration (these are the cells that can be used to create any cell in our body, they are not differentiated and have the potential to replace cells that have been dying out without being replaced by cells of the same type -a cause of ageing.
  • New drugs, including GDF-11, Senolytics, NMD/NAD+, look promising but one should be cautions since so far they have shown some age extending capabilities in the labs (on mice an extension of 10 to 15% of the life span has been demonstrated but we do not know if that would replicate in humans not we understand possible side effects…).
  • Machine Learning and AI in general is going to provide enhanced tools to pharmaceutical research, making possible to test in the cyberspace the potential of new molecules and organ and body on a chip can accelerate in-vitro testing. Digital Twins may play a crucial role in the acceleration and in the personalisation of drugs.
  • Genome sequencing, CRISPR technologies, AI, quantum computing and cellular medicine are converging accelerating the discovery process and clinical trials evaluation.

In general we have started to see a flattening of the curve (see first graphic and look at the curves representing the life span extension in Europe, Oceania and America) so it is obvious that something “new” would be needed to further extend humankind lifespan. The technologies listed above may be that “new” that can change the rules of the game.

Graphic showing the increased expenditure per person as age increases. Image credit: Office for Budget Responsibility, UK

At the same time a word of caution should be given, to take into account ageing population side effect on society and economy.

As shown in the graphic on the side, the cost per person increases significantly with age. It is nevertheless important to notice that usually the highest expenditure is in the 6 months preceding death, so it is not necessarily a function of age (although as we get older we are more likely to suffer from multiple pathologies, adding to the cost of healthcare).

One of the goal of researchers involved in the quest for longer lifespan is also the extension of good health, so that should take care, at least in part, of the increasing cost.

There are also societal implication in the lifespan extension, like the potential increase in world population and the need to increase the working-life time. This in turns requires a re-thinking/re-planning of social security/retirement. Notice that I am not saying that extending our life (in good health) is bad, not at all. I am just pointing out that if this megatrend gets real we are going to face issues that need to be solved in the next ten years and ten years in societal aspects is a very short time.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.