If evolution has taught us anything, it’s that most humans have a strong will to live. We’ve always created stories about immortality, and many of us strive to leave a legacy behind in some manner. Inheritance, fame, and children are great examples of this.
That said, this obsession with living longer in some way has manifested in actually trying to extend our lifespans, something especially evident over the last 150 years: “before the advent of what we would think of as modern medicine, the average lifespan of humans was about 40 years . . . Modern medicine has effectively doubled the average lifespan in a little over a century“.
How has this remarkable progress been realized in such a short period of human history? Technology.
Causes of Death
In order to discover ways to live longer, we first have to learn why we’re dying in the first place. Diseases and other medical issues seem to be the main causes of death as we age based on global statistics collected by the World Health Organization (2000-2019).
Accidents, while previously a major factor of death, are now largely avoided thanks to the employment of safety equipment and regulations, robot automation, and drones that can reach dangerous areas. Think of drones that enter tight spaces filled with toxic gases or robots designed to defuse bombs, for instance. These ultimately save lives.
Due to diseases and other medical conditions, the global average for women is 76 years of age and 71 years of age for men.
It’s important to note that these stats are primarily gathered through technology of some sort, whether through medical diagnosis or global communication systems. This means that technology has allowed us to identify how humans die, but it also determines something else – how we can live longer.
Increasing Life Longevity
Knowing the primary causes of death for humans across the globe allows scientists and innovators to research and implement methods to increase the average lifespan. This is why we should consider what technology is doing with genetic forecasts.
Amit Khera, a cardiologist at the Broad Institute at Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of many researchers working on accurate polygenic scores that “can now identify as much risk for disease as the rare genetic flaws that have preoccupied physicians until now“. In other words, it’s like a report card that states your chances of developing numerous different medical conditions or diseases. This technology already exists, though it hasn’t been released to the public.
Another technology that’s still in development may have doctors “use the metabolites in blood samples to predict the likelihood of a person surviving another five to ten years” using biomarkers found in blood. This would aid with clinical trials and determining whether surgery is worth the risk on a case-by-case basis.
Moreover, artificial intelligence (A.I.) may soon be able to accurately assess health risks and even determine a patient’s chances of dying. After analyzing ten years of previous medical data, the University of Nottingham recently concluded that “the predictions of early death that were made by AI algorithms were “significantly more accurate” than predictions delivered by a model that did not use machine learning“. In a similar fashion, Google’s Medical Brain team was able to more accurately predict a patient’s chances of death than the hospital’s own Early Warning Score. “Moving forward, Google wants to work on A.I. tools that can predict not only death risk, but also symptoms and diseases“.
While these technologies are incredibly morbid, they have the potential to prevent more serious conditions or diseases later on (e.g., cancer). Equally important is that much of the technology currently in place in healthcare, as well as what’s currently being developed, seems to be primarily focused on medical breakthroughs and cures that will ultimately extend our lives.
Financial analysts believe that “genome sequencers such as Illumina, high-tech players such as Alphabet, and biotech companies such as Novartis are on the cusp of “bringing unprecedented increases to the quality and length of human lifespans”“. Companies like these contribute to advances in many areas including disease research/cures, drug development, A.I. that enables precision medicine, and gene therapy.
For example, mRNA vaccines are a safer option to traditional vaccines as they don’t use elements of dangerous pathogens, but rather a messaging system that tells the body how to protect itself against a pathogen.
On a similar note, think of the obsession with gadgets and apps that monitor your steps or heart rate like Fitbit’s smart watch, or even video games that encourage activity like the Wii Fit. The line between useful consumer products and entertainment properties is increasingly becoming blurry as we become more focused on maintaining good health.
So as we brace for the future, how long might we possibly live for? While some scientists continue to research methods of extending our lives even longer, they note that the human body has limitations and can’t continue to function forever. This means that immortality in the traditional sense is definitely not an option.
That said, “other scientists are pursuing “rejuvenation technologies” that will allow people to act and feel younger longer; some are studying removing toxins from the body that they believe contribute to the problems of ageing“. With the potential to eliminate diseases or serious conditions entirely, the leading causes of death that we saw above might become non-existent one day!
Of course, even if we are one day able to omit the things that usually kill us (cancer, diseases, tragic accidents, war), “our body’s capacity to restore equilibrium to its myriad structural and metabolic systems after disruptions . . . sets the maximum life span for humans at somewhere between 120 and 150 years“.
Ultimately, despite our continuing efforts to ‘become immortal’, there’s a limit to the number of years that scientific and medical breakthroughs can extend our lives. “A long life span is not the same as a long health span“. The very fact that we can’t avoid death, however, shouldn’t be something we fear; instead, we should use this knowledge to guide us into making the most of the time we do have left.
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