The infinite life (or almost)

8-07-2022 | News

Life expectancies continue to lengthen and, according to science, the possibility of living up to 200 years in good health is looming on the horizon. A comforting prospect but which must be prepared in time, by providing the appropriate tools.

by Enrico Sassoon

The dream of immortality, or at least of a very long life rewarded by a state of unalterable youth, has been part of the individual and collective psyche from the very beginning. And it could not be otherwise, given the brevity of human experience, itself already limited, when not further shortened by events traumatic, such as accidents, wars or illnesses. Remember the epic of Gilgamesh? It's a 4000 year old saga of Babylon. Volumes of it have been written, fascinating theatrical versions have been staged. In Gilgamesh, an apparently immortal old man reveals the existence of a plant on the bottom of the sea capable of giving eternal youth. Gilgamesh wants to give it to humanity, he looks for it, finds it but, in resting after the adventure, he is robbed of it by a snake. The reptile will live forever and Gilgamesh grows old in despair and dies, and such remains the fate of his offspring to this day.

The saga is on the verge of written history. But since then the myths have been wasted. Eos, goddess of the dawn, asks Zeus to give immortality to Titone with whom she fell in love. Wish granted, but the spiteful king of the Gods grants immortality but not youth and Eos will live forever with an increasingly decrepit companion. Thetis points to Achilles' immortality and plunges him into the Styx, holding him by the heel. Homer tells us how it ended. Methuselah touches, in the Old Testament, the 969 years of age, worthy son of his father Enoch who generates dozens of children in his 365 years of life. A secular declination of some interest: that of Henokiens, as the heirs of Enoch say, it is today an exclusive association of 22 family businesses that boast over 200 years of history; among them Italian companies such as Beretta and Amarelli, even if the palm of the oldest goes to the Shoshi ryokan, active since 700 AD always within the same family.

Let's jump to modern times. Famous is the myth of Faust, told in the great world literature by Goethe, Marlowe and others, set to music by Gounod and first brought to the screens by Murnau. And, again, the disturbing story of Dorian Gray from the pen of Oscar Wilde, transposed on the screens in a film with Angela Lansbury that 70 years ago obtained the Oscar. And then the recent film The Age of Adaline, which in the Italian title becomes significantly Adaline. Eternal youth.

And let's jump to the present day. Immortality seems to come out of the myth and, for some, it becomes a goal. In the headlines, news stories of tycoons of technology or finance pouring billions into the search for the formulas of youth, prolonged if not eternal, are recurrent. They are Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Elon Musk of Tesla, and above all of SpaceX and Neuralink; but also of Bill Gates of Microsoft. Some, like the first two, look quite prosaically to their own personal eternity; others, like Gates with his foundation, to the destinies of humanity. The minimum objective would seem to be longevity, that is the extension of human life up to 150 years, but also 200 or even 500. But there is also the ambition of eternity, and in this case it is not a miraculous plant. at the bottom of the sea, but of a massive research to which thousands of scientists are dedicated. Again, the goal is longevity, but also perennial youth; after all, however, there is also a glimpse of a sort of immortality.

For many it is money thrown to the wind, pastimes for the rich, overcrowded and spoiled, in love with themselves to the point of rejecting the somewhat annoying idea of their own finitude. To what purpose, those greats seem to be wondering, boasting a fortune of 100 and even more billions of dollars if life is so short? In fact, the pursuit of the mechanisms of youth is scientific question very serious and based on research that has already brought extraordinary results and that promise to bring many more in the coming years and decades.

Longevity is serious business

There are many phenomena that converge to lead to consider longevity goals a fact of solid reality. Human life is getting longer every day, in advanced countries as well as in developing ones. Better and richer nutrition, tremendous advances in health, the spread of education, fewer accidents and fewer victims of wars are among the factors contributing to the outcome.. Consequence: global population living longer, with life expectancy doubling from 40 to 80 years in many areas and in less than a century. And an increasing global population: from less than 2 billion a century ago to 7.5 today and 10, or possibly 11, billion in 2050. In this context, the proportion and number of seniors over 65. And its value is discovered, because older yes, but also healthier, more active, richer than other segments of the population, with new needs and new spending capacities. In America, the expression is coined that "60 is the new 40". This cohort of over 65 is now spoken of as a new Eldorado ready to explode and it has been creatively baptized the silver economy.

Let's fix the ideas: as Odile Robotti and Andrea Granelli wrote on Harvard Business Review Italia in the article titled "The Silver Bullet," the global increase in the elderly population accelerates and is no longer just a first world phenomenon. The elderly, currently the 12% of the world population, will almost double by 2050. No wonder, therefore, that, in the US alone, over 7 trillion a year are already worth as a cluster (estimates by Merrill Lynch), that is, slightly less than China and more than Japan. The spending power of this demographic group already exceeds 15 trillion globally today. In addition to being numerically on the rise, in fact, the elderly in general have a good income available - often higher than that of their children - who spend to stay active and engaged. This discontinuity with respect to previous generations in lifestyles and, consequently, in consumption, means that in the USA and Japan already in 2030 the so-called longevity sector it will be worth more than half of the GDP.

And Italy, in this context, is reaping its laurels. Already today it has many elderly people: the 29% of the population is over 60 years old, while more than the 23% is made up of people over 65. The percentage will increase further: ours is one of the countries where life expectancy is highest in the world, 85 years for women and 80.2 for men according to the most recent statistics. In this way, the over 65s are expected to rise to 34% in 2050. Only Japan and Germany are aging faster than us: we are practically a bronze medal.

Each coin, of course, has its downside. These primates put a strain on the system pension and the seal of welfare. Living longer is a blessing, but on the condition that you can live further years and decades in a protected and pleasant way. To this end, several years ago Linda Gratton and Andrew Scott invited, in their book The 100-Year Life, to become aware of the evolution underway and stressed the need to prepare for a longer life by appropriately managing savings, movable and real estate, future financial flows, the relationship with children and grandchildren, the construction of a network of social relationships of support. And, of course, an appropriate health plan based on a partly public and partly private scheme. A new book by the two authors is even more focused and precise, The new longevity, which concretely defines the path that our societies will have to take in order to face the revolution of the age.

From this point of view, the public welfare systems are clearly not only an insufficient portion to support such prolonged existences, but also a decreasing portion. Hence the expansion of supplementary savings and pension systems, designed and proposed to rationally program the resources desired for a longer, healthier and happier existence.

Targeted innovation

The elderly as consumers are, and increasingly will be, an important market, and their unmet needs can be a source of innovation in products / services and business models. And, last but not least, they are a workforce reservoir for organizations.

Take, for example, the delay in infrastructure and services for the elderly. According to the Global Age Watch index of some time ago, for example Italy is in 39th place for the quality of life of seniors. It is a negative point but, at the same time, it represents an opportunity for those who will fill the offer gap.

The cities themselves will have to be rethought to the extent of advanced elderly age: from the type of steps (those that are too high are not good) to the presence of more public seating to allow rest breaks for seniors who walk. Another area of enormous opportunities are technologies for the elderly, especially digital ones, which are having a real boom, so much so that they have become a priority for the European Union: home banking has been a real killer application of the third age; the medical device remotely connected, they have already begun a path destined to soon become a triumphal march. Who will be able to develop technological products with a specific design for this target has excellent prospects.

To this it should be added that the services for seniors, which affect many product sectors (health, continuing education, finance, insurance, etc.), remain highly fragmented, leaving room for market consolidation by business integrator able to group small entities to grasp economies of scale and scope. Finally, the shortage of skilled workers which will inevitably affect our economies, and which is already being felt, could be filled by seniors called back into service thanks to flexible formulas adapted to their needs.

Their needs will have to be understood more and more deeply by companies to provide successful products and services and only people of the same age will be able to do so effectively and comprehensively. In fact, as Luigi Pintor noted a few years ago: «A great deal has been written about senility, Latin philosophers and modern novelists, but it is a condition that cannot be understood through an intermediary. You enter a foreign and unexpected body. No one can get an idea of this mutation without experiencing it, just as no one can conceive of an ant without being one ».

The promises of science

All right. we will live longer, perhaps much longer. How much? Beyond the rumors, what does science say? Surprisingly, even if perhaps not for everyone, science believes in it: it is possible not only to lengthen human life, but also to reverse the biological clock. That is, at least stop the aging mechanism but also, and it is already a reality, to reverse it and cause cell rejuvenation. A very recent book by Andrew Steele exhibits the title of Ageless. But more significant is the subtitle: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old, which is what the new science can do to allow you to age without becoming old. But what does it mean? It means that, no less, according to the author's excellent synthesis, science and technology have reached a turning point that is leading humanity to the threshold of a sort of "biological immortality", thanks to therapies that can lead to a state of "negligible senescence". Through genetic manipulation, it will be possible to arrive, in a relatively short time, at therapies aimed not at the prevention of the single pathology, be it cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and neurological degenerations, now inevitably connected to the progress of age. Rather, to modify and block the aging process itself, and perhaps reverse it: in some varieties of insects and mice, research has already done it and it is not clear why it cannot, in a very short time, also benefit humans.

The synthesis is fascinating and science fiction, and it is worth reiterating: by preventing aging, all the pathologies brought about by age are prevented in one fell swoop and the very concept of specific therapy for a single disease is eliminated.

A learned article published in April 2021 caused a sensation The New York Times entitled "Can We Live to 200 Years?". The answer, essentially affirmative, is articulated in a long list of the steps that medicine will be able to accomplish in the coming years. And for the next few years we mean both the short and medium term, ie between the next 5 and 30 years, and the long and very long term, ie between the next 30 and 100 years. Too long a horizon? Definitely not, if you consider that life expectancy is already getting longer by one month every year and that the number of over-one-hundred-year-olds rises with a very steep curve. A concluding anecdote makes this evolution concrete: until a few years ago the Japanese government rewarded the passage of 100 years by giving a gold coin to each lucky person. Today, with several thousand neo-centenarians every year, the coveted prize has been canceled. Japan renews the compliments, but the treasury coffers can no longer afford it.

Share this content on: