Can we ever live forever?

Jun 26 2021

150 years ago, the human life span was between 30 and 40 years old. Now, billions of us live happy and healthy lives well into our 70s and beyond. Each and every year, our average global lifespan increases by three months. But what hasn’t  increased in some time, is the age of the oldest living human. In 1997, Jeanne Calment from Arles, France, passed away at 122 years old and remains the record holder for the longest human lifespan. Longevity experts want to know: How can we give more people a chance to live this long? And how do we show people that they should want to? 

Longevity and immortality have always been a hot topic for science fiction movies and utopian novels. They explore what it would mean for society if we were to stick around longer. Not just how youthful we could look if we could combat aging, but the wisdom we could pass down and the things we’d experience if we lived for centuries. But beyond the screen and the page, the ever-growing longevity industry is busy finding solutions to these challenges. Focused on the production of therapies that target mechanisms of aging, longevity industry leaders span healthcare, gerontology, and biomedicine, and are developing groundbreaking new ways to improve our lifespans - from day-to-day wellness to cutting-edge technologies. 

According to Sergey Young, investor and venture capitalist, longevity expert and the author of the forthcoming book, The Science and Technology of Growing Young, longevity isn’t about adding years onto the end of your life, it’s about adding them in the middle, extending the period when you’re at your prime. Young plans to live to 150, and explains on our very own Future Positive podcast that he wakes up every day and thinks about “growing young” – specifically, the three-quarters of his life he has left and the goals he wants to achieve within that time. 

This sense of purpose is considered the starting point for a longevity mindset, along with a proactive attitude to personal health. Young’s book covers key topics in the field of longevity and, importantly, that includes our individual choices. The number one thing we can do to improve our life spans, Young writes, is to regularly attend health checkups in order to identify cancer and other illnesses at the early stages. We can also pay attention to the research on lifestyle and longevity: a 20-25% reduction in caloric intake can improve our lifespans, says Young, and intermittent fasting, plant-based or low sugar diets can all help. Sleep is important too, he points out; the optimum sleep duration for longevity has been found to be seven or eight hours per night. 

While we as individuals play a big role in improving our own lifespans, we can think about these steps as – in the words of American futurist Ray Kurzweil in 2009 – “bridges to immortality”. In the future, Kurzweil says, medical advances will “add one additional year, every year, to your life expectancy”. 

Whether or not this could become exponential, allowing us to live forever, remains to be seen, but with the help of AI, research is constantly accelerating, explains Young. Novel imaging, sensing, and sequencing tools have meant more clinical data, and AI has meant that we can process this mass of data more quickly, speeding up scientific discoveries. Take for example DNA. “If you look at DNA, the longevity genes we’ve discovered have gone from 300 to 3000,” explains Young. “Gene editing was once for people with rare genetic diseases but in the course of the last ten years it has developed,” says Young of the dramatically lowering cost of CRISPR technology over recent years. “Gene editing will soon mean we can alter and modify our genes to be more healthy, younger, and to even reverse aging.”

Beyond biological interventions, exciting frontiers in longevity come from the world of tech. In the future, self-driving cars will make us safer by reducing the incidence of traffic accidents, for example. The futurist Dr. Ian Pearson has argued that with the power of technology, humans might be able to merge our minds with machines, our bodies becoming obsolete: “One day, your body dies, and with it, your brain stops, but no big problem, because 99% of your mind is still fine, running happily on IT, in the cloud.” When you consider that people living with disabilities already rely on mobility devices and electronic hearing aids, for example, this idea doesn’t seem so farfetched. Elon Musk’s Neuralink aims to create a human-computer interface powered by AI, a technology which could, theoretically, provide something close to life afterlife. In the future, will we combine deep fakes, holograms, or avatars with our data to create versions of ourselves that live on, beyond our bodies, infinitely? It’s entirely possible. 

Some people have doubts over the ethics of extending our lifespans. Young points out that concerns about overpopulation are one limiting belief, but there are many positives. According to The Lancet, more than 70 percent of all deaths can be attributed to age-related diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and liver disease, and in the US, chronic diseases like these are the leading driver of the more than $3 trillion spent annually on health care. Longevity breakthroughs would improve our economies, allowing us to work for longer and reducing healthcare spending. Not to mention more time with our families. 

As for equal access, right now healthcare inequality is one reason that lifespans vary in different parts of the world and among different socioeconomic groups. If we want to fight this issue rather than exacerbate it, longevity technologies will need to be widely available. That may not instantly sound possible, says Young, but consider that smartphones were elite items twenty years ago, and now around half the world’s population has one. 

To actually live longer, we as a society have to will this to happen and make it a reality — by adopting the technologies that can take us there. We already know from increasing lifespan trajectories that we have the possibility to live for longer. Not only is a future of greater longevity inevitable, but it will also accelerate with the dawn of AI. We might not be able to live forever, exactly, but one day soon, 122 could become the new normal.