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The elixir of life?

The recent passing of Emma Morano, 117 — the last remaining person known to have been born in the 19th century — coupled with news that the duke of Edinburgh will stand down from royal duties in the autumn aged 97, illustrate that we are living longer. At the Lords Cricket Ground the other day, the duke looked sprightly as he glided down the stairs, charmed the welcoming party and briskly toured the ground without a stick or cane.

Incredibly, most people born in the same year as him did not live past 50; how things have changed. Ancient mythology is full of stories of man’s quest for an elixir for immortality, referenced as Amrita in India, Aab-e-Hayat in Persia and with over 1,000 names in the Chinese tradition (elixir comes from the Arabic word for miracle substances, “al-iksir”). Humanity has not yet achieved this, but it has got octogenarity down to a tee.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), average global life expectancy is 71.4. This conceals wide variations between countries (83.7 in Japan and 50.1 in Sierra Leone) and genders (women at 73.8 and men at 69.1 worldwide). To medics, the marked increased in life expectancy worldwide ranks as one of mankind’s greatest achievements. Between 1950 and the present day, life expectancy in East Asia has risen remarkably from 45 to 74.

Mass public health projects of the 20th century must take the credit for humanity’s great leap into retirement. Immunizations against polio, measles and smallpox, coupled with improved nutrition, access to health care and clean drinking water have improved the lives of millions.

In most countries today, the elderly are the fastest-growing segment of the population. According to the WHO, the number of people aged 65 and above is to grow from 500 million in 2010 — about 8 percent of the world’s 7 billion people — to close to 1.5 billion in 2050, a staggering 15 percent of the global population.

The aforementioned health projects have lengthened lives mostly because they have ensured that more children survive to adulthood and thus more adults live to old age. But aside from the obvious benefits of improvements in health care, scientists have identified regions where longevity is greatest.

Known as “blue zones,” researchers have identified regions on the back of Ancel Key’s studies in the 1950s, which highlighted that southern Italy had the world’s highest concentration of centenarians. Due to a diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oil, fish and lower levels of animal fat, southern Italy and the Gascoigne region of France have attracted great attention since then.

More recently, the Greek island of Ikaria, Sardinia in Italy and Japan’s Okinawa islands have been identified as areas of particular longevity. A diet of pulses, frequent walks, strong social links and low alcohol intake are the common denominators in these communities, where living to 90 is almost routine.

The elixir of life?In an era where global achievements are so often lost amid ongoing conflict, humanitarian catastrophes and political instability, the story of humanity’s ability to essentially double its lifespan is remarkable.

Zaid M. Belbagi

In Western Europe, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, wealthy societies with good health care systems have seen life expectancy increase by an average of three months per year and two and a half years per decade. Nonetheless, it seems the human body in its current evolutionary form has an upper limit of 120 (Jeanne Calment, the oldest verified living person, died at 122 in 1997).

Experiments currently underway suggest that this upper limit could be extended. An important feature of research has illustrated that reduced calorie intake (up to 40 percent in some studies) allows the body to increase time spent on cellular repair and therefore boosting resilience to disease.

Interestingly, though on the slightly more fanciful end of the research spectrum, the Sens Foundation in Silicon Valley argues that the main degenerative effects of aging, such as cellular loss and DNA mutations, could one day be reversed, leading to lifespans of 1,000 years. Though correct in principle, such statements rely hugely on massive advances in science and technology that are almost unfathomable.

As longevity has greatly increased, global fertility rates have plummeted. This has led to a demographic anomaly in human history whereby young children will no longer outnumber the elderly. In many countries, this top-heavy scale is causing huge financial strain and societal changes as communities learn to cope with an increasing number of retirees.

In the developing word this is especially profound, as longevity has rocketed as economic development is still very much underway. By 2050, there could be 100 million Chinese over the age of 80. The speed at which people are living longer in the developing world is also interesting. It took a century for the number of those over 65 to double in France; in Brazil this will happen in under 20 years.

Longer lifespans will require associated economic planning, for instance using technology to allow those less physically active to continue working and contributing to service delivery in the tertiary employment sector.

In an era where global achievements are so often lost amid ongoing conflict, humanitarian catastrophes and political instability, the story of humanity’s ability to essentially double its lifespan is remarkable. Given the precariousness of the species over millennia, its robustness today is an admirable sight.

 

Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.