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The challenge of longevity

Aubrey De Grey | Business challenges with Actuarial Life Expectancy Anthony Harrington

Big business and governments are already grappling with the uncomfortable side effects of increasing longevity on actuarial life expectancy. According to actuaries, the present generation has gained the equivalent of 12 minutes an hour or a 20% increase in average lifespan by comparison with the previous generation.

The impact of this is felt first and foremost in the pensions arena, with businesses having to run harder just to stand still as far as their pension scheme deficits are concerned thanks to increasing actuarial life expectancy. But it is felt too by governments across Europe as they struggle to pay out meaningful state pension benefits against the headwind imposed by the fact that the ratio of those in work to those on pension is getting more and more out of balance.

The impact of increased longevity is felt too in the health systems, where the diseases and ailments of old age take an increasing toll on a country’s medical resources.

These problems might seem fairly intractable, or at least extremely difficult and challenging in their own right, but it could be just the tip of the iceberg, according to the renowned longevity specialist Dr Aubrey de Grey, Chief Scientist at the charity Sens, which specializes in promoting research that aims to “defeat ageing.”

Dr Aubrey de Grey is famous for asserting that the first person to enjoy a four-digit lifespan is probably already in his or her middle years.

Before I give a rapid summary of his reasoning—those interested in learning more can watch a video of one of his presentations at the Sens website—it is worth saying that if de Grey is right, then instead of exacerbating the pension problems, as I suggested earlier, it will probably make the problem vanish like a puff of smoke. Provided society stays reasonably open, people will have more than enough time to acquire independent means. The magic of compound arithmetic will be very much in their favor. Start small, watch it grow, where’s the hurry?

So what is Dr Aubrey de Grey’s approach that makes him a serious scientist and not a crank? Hugely summarized, his view is that all ageing is caused by damage arising from the body’s inability to clean all the products of metabolism out of every cell. The gunk piles up, little by little until sufficient damage is created for doctors to start treating symptoms. There are three kinds of geriatric medicine, he says. The first addresses the large symptoms of damage, and its task is hopeless, since more damage piles up. The second tries preventative therapies, but the gunk piles up anyway since metabolism is vastly complex at the cellular level and we don’t have much of a grip on it. The third takes an engineering approach to ageing and tries to roll back intra-cellular damage where the limits of science make this possible.

So far this doesn’t get the 1,000-year life span. But in Dr Aubrey de Grey’s view current research already holds out sufficient promise of being able to extend life by 30 years. The breakthroughs are coming so fast now that within those thirty years we’ll be able to push mortality back another 20 years—this, before those benefiting from the 30-year increase have used it up, and so on, at an increasing speed. With the advances opening out in front of the individual, pushing back “death from damage” ever further out in time, it quickly ceases to be an issue.

One area de Grey cites where progress is being made at a huge pace is in engineering microbes to eat the various unwanted protein chains and so on that lead to choked up arteries, cancers, strokes and so on. If you try hard enough you can breed a specific strain of microbe to eat any target. Getting the right microbes inside the cell without killing the patient is hard science but not impossible science and progress is coming at a pace, he says.

Where does all this leave society and business, which is currently predicated on the notion of the three-decade mortgage and the four-decade career? The answer, clearly, is with a great deal of strategic thinking to do on a terrain that is currently largely unmapped. Give it a little thought, the vistas that open up are mind boggling… For a start you can forget inheritance tax, the kids can jolly well accumulate for themselves…

Further reading on actuarial life expectancy, longevity and pensions

Tags: ageing , longevity , society
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