Since the turn of the 20th century, life expectancy in the developed world has risen from just shy of 50 years to nearly 80. But how much higher can it get? Author David Ewing Duncan’s new book “When I’m 164” argues that advances in medicine and bionics will drastically increase our life expectancy in the next 30 to 50 years. What are the potential social, environmental and economic ramifications of extending our lives?

David Ewing Duncan's TedxBrussel's Talk

David Ewing Duncan, author of "When I'm 164: The New Science of Radical Life Extension, and What Happens if it Succeeds," television, radio and film producer, correspondent for Atlantic.com and for public radio's Biotech Nation

  • BaneCapitol

    I’m more interested in knowing whether the USA is going to make it long-term. It seems like our democracy has been occupied by corporations and, unlike the occupiers in Zuccotti square, no one is kicking the corporate occupiers out of DC. I wonder, is the USA going to make it to the 250 year mark intact? Or will the descendants of the 1%ers that wanted to eject FDR and replace him with a fascist, in what was called the Business Plot of 1933, turn the US into a country run by and for their corporations?

  • nafiss

    Nothing happens in the vacuum, time itself is imprisoned by the Laws of Relativity.  So in order to extend life you must have a sane environment to do that.  For a start world population has reached a dangerous level for our species to progress.  Whether on a planet or in a villa when the crowding gets to a critical level degradation ensues.  Our genes didn’t evolve in a vacuum either, rather they evolved  in relation to the oceans, tropical and rain forests, adequately clean air, clean water, etc.  If Scientists are truly serious abut prolonging our life they better start getting political to stop global warming, population bomb,which is the true “nuclear” bomb, and urge the governments of the world to finance sciences and education in general, otherwise stellar scientists like Linus Pauling would never emerge without a robust Public Education.

  • Guest

    It is only appropriate that a reference to the boomers’ beloved Beatles is brought to this discussion.  And to answer the question implied by the title of your guest’s book:  no.  I will NOT love, need or feed you when you’re 164.  Do your time and then, please, get out of the way.

  • T from SF

    How selfish does one have to
    be to want to live to 164? It’s beyond un-natural.

    Only the rich
    will be able to afford the technology to extend life that far, and
    those people on average consume the most resources and produce the most
    waste (thereby putting the rest of us at risk). There’s only so much pie
    to go around, and the G20 mostly skimp on foreign aid to the Third
    World, even though it’s much cheaper to extend and improve life for
    them. Much of America’s health expenses are used during end-of-life
    care. Now we are talking about possibly extending that costly period to

    I worked in biotech, so I’ve seen a lot of oversold and
    health miracles. FDA new drug approval rates are declining, drugs are
    less profitable, and health care austerity isn’t going away. So maybe
    the 1% will live until 164, while the rest of us may actually have worse
    health in the future? 

  • Thomas Hayden

    I have a lot of respect for
    both Michael and David, but I have to correct the fallacy they started
    the conversation with this morning. *Average* life expectancy has
    increased dramatically over the past 100 years or so, but that is mostly
    due to the decrease in infant and childhood mortality (because of
    better obstetrics care, vaccination and antibiotics), with relatively
    modest gains in total lifespan (better nutrition, safer working
    conditions) for individuals who lived to adulthood. It’s not at all true
    that if you were born in 1900, you would live to about 40 or 50. Rather, if
    you were born in 1900 you had a high probability of dying very young,
    and dragging down the *average* lifespan to about 40 for the rest of the
    population. If you survived childhood, you had a decent chance of
    living to, say, 92, as my own 1900-born grandmother did. Yes, average
    lifespan has historically increased, and there is some interesting
    lifespan-extension research underway that may someday help extend total
    possible lifespan. But that hasn’t happened yet, and there is
    practically no biological or medical connection between the two.

    • Anthony

      That is actually not correct either.  If you survived childhood, you would still not likely reach 65. Only 25% of the U.S. population made it to 65 in 1900 per  Walter vom Saal.  Yes, a large number of people did die before reaching adulthood.  However, a significant percentage of people died between 18 and 65 as well.  Hence, a person who made it to 18 still had a very poor chance of reaching 92.  

      Now, it would be very interesting to compare lifespans for the 25% of the population that reached 65 in 1900 and a similar cohort that reaches 65 today.  I assume that the 25% in 1900 were among the most robust people from that population.  If we compare them to the 25% in the best health at 65 from, say, the current numbers, we might find that lifespans after 65 (for this cohort) have risen much more than previously thought.  

      We could then take the percentage of people from 1900 that died between the ages of 50-65.  Try to determine their health status at time of death.  Then find a similar cohort from today’s population to get an accurate reading of increases in lifespan for that group….And etc. 

      By doing this, we can compare apples to apples and get a real feel for how much we have increased lifespan for given cohorts of people. 

      Currently, when individuals state that lifespans for people who reach 65 have not increased that much, they are comparing the most robust cohort from previous generations against a much wider range of people from the current decade–many of which would have died between 18-65 in previous eras.

      • Thomas Hayden

        I think we’re talking in the same direction – vorn Saal is referring to people who lived to age 65 *in* 1900, which is a world away from living to 65 when *born* in 1900 (i.e. living to 1965), since the former life would be lived without effective treatment for infectious disease, and the latter would overlap with the development of vaccination, antibiotics, etc. And we agree (me: “relatively modest,” you: “significant percentage”) that death did still occur between 18 and 65 at higher rates than it does now. That mortality has also decreased, just not as dramatically as infant mortality.

        Your thought experiment is interesting, but I’m not sure the assumption holds that the longest-lived pre-1900 were the most “robust” in some internal sense–genetics or some other endogenous factor. I’m sure that would be part of the story, but a great deal would also presumably be down to relative wealth, luck, and the good fortune to live away from war and pestilence, for example.

        Anyway, the point remains: true lifespan extension – pushing an individual lifespan beyond what has historically been possible – is still entirely speculative.

        • Anthony

          Agreed that we haven’t yet extended maximum human lifespans (which probably vary by individual).  It will be interesting to see if we can achieve this result (slowing/reversing primary aspects of the aging process) in my lifetime.  Personally, I think that we will find a way to slow/reverse aging to some degree (even if only for a year or less) in the next few decades.

      • Vijay Gupta

        There is not a single controlled study that shows that any medical intervention invented in the last 100 years (excluding those related to child mortality, vaccinations, antibiotics, and treatment of serious traumatic injuries) has increased average lifespan by even a few months. In fact, I predict that due to abuse, misuse and overuse of prescription and OTC drugs, lifespan will actually decline over time. Some decline has already started in US.

        • Anthony

          Actually incorrect, several drugs, including statins and insulin, have had a modest impact on longevity.  More to the point, we cannot look at the past and project out to the future.  As technology and our understanding of genetics, proteomics, etc. improves, we increase our odds (even if only very slightly) of identifying a compound/procedure (or group of such things) that will add healthy months/years to life.  

          With that said, the goal of many people is not to increase lifespan per say but to increase health span/reduce suffering.  Any increases in life span are a by-product…

          • Vijay Gupta

            Do you mean statins have had a modest and NEGATIVE impact on longevity? Seriously. Where is the data? Please don’t fall for the pharma propaganda.  

          • Anthony

            This is a CDC report demonstrating statins’ impact on average life span.  Click on the “Prevention” section of the guide.

            A journal article in the prestigious, New England Journal of Medicine which demonstrates a drug’s positive impact (in the short term) on cardiovascular events.

            Finally, here is an article from Endocrine Today discussing improved health outcomes for Type 1 diabetics. 

            As you will note, the data comes from several different stakeholders.  Additionally, it is collected in more than one way.  

            I hope that helps…

      • Raquel Santiago

         I agree and disagree with both of you, honestly, we do not know.  Yes, there are studies that support both of you, but there are also studies that dispute both of you.  The fact remains, at some point only one thing is proven, our physical forms will eventually die away.

  • Vijay Gupta

    There is a lot of hype around the question of modern medicine extending human lifespan. I have not seen a SINGLE controlled study that shows that any particular medical intervention to date has extended the lifespan by even a few months.

    The latest data actually shows that lifespan of whites in US has declined by a few months in recent years (blacks are still catching up with whites). 

  • Claude

    what about the condition of the planet and climate change as we extend our lives?  will there be adequate water, clean air, food?

  • Judith S

    When I was 60 I went to a financial planner and told him I had to plan to be 150.  He laughed at me, so I reduced it to 120 for planning purposes.  Both my parents lived beyond 90 and when I looked at my contemporaries I thought I was aging more slowly!  I still think I am, but hope that I keep my wits/mind and physical abilities in tact if I do live longer than most.  I am now 72 and have been retired for over 13 years.  I retired as soon as I could to make way for younger people.  What I worry about is water.  Will there be enough for everyone in the future.  Judith S  

  • Mlwindhover622

    We lose out on essential spiritual and existential lessons when we mess with mortality to this extent. The awareness that we have finite time on this plane lends meaning and significance to the time we have.

  • Laura

    I understand why people are interested in finding out if we can prolong life but maybe we should draw the line at a good, healthy 80 years.

  • mike

    this compares nicely with the program last week on the male biological clock …. natures lifespan is the reproductive cycle….. procreating and raising offspring, and maybe a few years of enjoyment … why more? 
    Pass on your knowledge and move over for the next generation !

  • Liz

    I want to live until a Democrat no longer hold the presidency! I’m not sure I want to be around when the extreme conservatives in the Republican party have the power to take away my rights. Though I suppose that’s already happening! Maybe instead of dying, I’ll just move to Canada.

    • Raquel Santiago

       Hi Liz, at first i was like what in the world is she thinking, then as i read further, i was like OK< i get it, insert sarcasm here(…)I agree on some of your points, but democrat wise i do not agree, I am just the opposite and think republicans should never hold the presidency as our basic human liberties are already trying to be taken away by republicans in office and I have sat in these meetings, its a lot worse than people think.  That said, I have hope for us as a human race, I just pray i am not disappointed.

  • I have spent over half of my 64 years living in meditation ashrams and monasteries. My practices have given me the direct experience that it is indeed true that we are eternal spiritual beings living a very brief period of exploration on this earth.  We are NOT limited ephemeral physical beings who dissolve into nothingness upon death.  It is literally true that the kingdom of God dwells within each of us.  I believe that this neurotic chase after extended physical lifespans is driven by fear of death and ignorance of the reality of our true nature.  I do fault mainstream religions for keeping billions of the earth’s creatures in fear and ignorance about the real nature of death.  They know better.  If we all knew the indescribable beauty and splendor that awaits us when we drop this physical form, an extended life span would not be so compelling.  However, if an extended lifespan could lead us to the certainty that we are only and always God’s, something that is better learned with age and wisdom, it might be worthwhile.

    • Raquel Santiago

       I dont think there is any argument that could be done on fearing death.  Most if not all of us fear death as it is the fear of the unknown, so many questions that may never be answered.  What happens when our physical existence ends?  Only one way to find out currently, not counting those who have come back from death with their “reports”, and i use that term very loosely.

  • Jamie

    I am glad you did a program on this, and so sorry I was able
    to listen only to a little. With all the problems and evils that face humanity
    and the planet, to think that the effort to extend human life longer and longer
    is receiving significant scientific, intellectual, and of course, financial
    attention… what better evidence of how skewed are our priorities and values?  I’ve long felt this pursuit should be setting
    of all kinds of ethical alarm bells. There seems to be very little attention to
    the fact that all this is, inevitably, about extending the lives of the rich
    and powerful of this world, and it’s hard to imagine that it could do anything
    but exacerbate the widening gap between rich and poor.  How old do I want to live to be?  When I pause to think about it, what an
    incredibly silly question!  In my better
    self, in which I seek to be of service to God and neighbor (friend and enemy
    alike), I seek the fullness of life that is found only in letting go of it, of
    being open to the wonder of the present moment in its tragedy and splendor, to
    the mystery of love.  Eternal life is
    completely available and present in every moment, if only we will seek and be
    willing to be present to it.  Expending valuable
    energy, resources, and intellectual capital to chronologically prolong life—and
    that mainly for the rich and powerful, and in the face of so much injustice and
    degradation in this world—seems to me rank ingratitude for the abundance of
    life that is already given for us all to partake of and to share, right now.

  • Raquel Santiago

    While in theory, longer lifespans are a great idea, the environmental impact as well as impact on quality of life is a huge issue that is yet to be addressed.  Sure most of us would love to live forever in this corporeal existence but what we do with that time is a huge factor.  We as human beings do things to try and better humankind but we never stop to think should we even though we can.  We are already using resources on the planet beyond what can be sustained or renewed.  Prior studies showed that it takes earth 1.5 years to replenish what we use in 1 one year, “http://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/3_times_sustainable” and five planets would still not be enough to sustain us, and that is prior studies. Then we have the quality of life issue, sure that person is living longer, but what is the quality like, are they in pain, are they active or stationary, working or retired, there are just so many unknown factors that cannot be predicted, the same as anything in life. There is still the inevitable factor here, that eventual these bodies will die away, that is an inevitability whether or not you are spiritual, I think many times that we are so afraid to let our physical forms go, as well as fear of the unknown after death that we try to extend our lives as much as possible. I need to stop blogging on this for this thread because I could literally write a book on the if’s, and’s, and but’s

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