Medical science is slowly unlocking new means of treating age-related diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. These medical advances are keeping people alive longer than ever before. But relatively little attention is given to slowing the aging process itself. Instead of combating disease one by one, our resources would be better spent targeting aging.
While human life expectancy (LE) in developed nations has risen from about 40 in 1800, to 80 today, this drastic improvement is not quite what it appears. We describe LE in terms of mathematical averages. Averages, we all know, can be distorted by outliers.
Indeed, much early LE progress was due to a reduced Child Mortality Rate (CMR), or fewer children dying before the age of five. A dramatic reduction in the CMR removed those outliers, creating the illusion that people were living longer.
We can see this effect in Britain, where the CMR fell from 329 per 1000 live births in 1800, to 228 in 1900. In that time, average LE rose from about 40 to 45. Beginning in 1900, improvements in sanitation, understanding of germ theory, and other medical advances saw an incredible reduction in the CMR, plunging to just 44 by 1950, helping propel headline LE to 67 years.
In the decades after 1950, progress in reducing CMR has continued, albeit more slowly. Instead, science has directed its attention to the diseases of aging and keeping people alive longer. In the US, for example, the average LE rose from 70 in 1960 to 79 in 2015, a feat that is repeated in other developed countries.
One by one, disease by disease, we are slowly but surely making progress. There is just one problem: while people are living about ten years longer, they are spending that last ten years in poor health. Indeed, the Healthy Life Expectancy (HLE), or the average number of years spent living without debilitating diseases or injuries, has remained largely static.
This fact illustrates the limitations of the disease-by-disease approach. As evidenced by rapidly growing healthcare expenditures around the world, it is increasingly costly to extend LE, and the returns are diminishing.
This is all complicated by the problem of competing risks, which holds that because chronic fatal age-related diseases don’t operate independently of one another, the disease-by-disease approach is suboptimal and inefficient.
We could, for example, invest all of our economic and technological might into fully eradicating cancer. But eradicating cancer would only bring a small increase in average LE because it won’t take long for other causes of death to catch up.
Instead of targeting individual diseases in an endless game of whack-a-mole, resources would be better spent targeting the underlying cause: aging itself.
The notion of slowing aging sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it is happening today. In fact, some believe it has been happening for decades, we just didn’t notice. Metformin, a drug used to treat diabetes since the 1950s, is showing promise as the world’s first anti-aging drug.
This discovery is largely by accident. In the decades since Metformin’s adoption, statisticians noticed something rather peculiar. Diabetic individuals taking Metformin tended to live longer and healthier lives than diabetics on other drugs. Even more remarkably, however, they tended to outlive their non-diabetic counterparts. While it is not yet proven, many believe that Metformin slows aging, preventing and/or delaying the onset of multiple age-related diseases simultaneously.
Metformin is currently in Phase 3 trial testing in the TAME (Targeting Aging with Metformin) study, which hopes to establish the drug’s efficacy as a life-extension product. Once the mechanism of action is confirmed and understood, it may be possible to create new offshoot products that are more effective at slowing aging than a repurposed diabetes medication.
Such a breakthrough development would be an ideal candidate for a patent buyout to ensure that access is affordable and the social returns maximized.
Why It Matters
If humanity finds a means of slowing aging, the economic and social returns are staggering. In an analysis done by Andrew Scott , Martin Ellison , and David Sinclair in Nature Aging, it is estimated that a single-year increase in LE would bring about $38 Trillion of economic benefits. A ten-year increase in LE would bring nearly $367 trillion of additional economic activity. This is some $7 trillion every year over fifty years.
The numbers alone don’t do this concept justice. There is much to be gained from people living longer and healthier lives. In a world facing a growing demographic crisis of graying and shrinking populations, targeting aging could be one tool in the toolkit to prevent economic and societal collapse. If people can live healthier, longer, and more productive lives, everyone benefits.
J. Lund writes for The Lianeon Project. The Lianeon Project is gathering the best ideas into one place where they can be shared and improved. It seeks ideas that ensure the continued march of civilization, human progress, and a better future.