S. Jay Olshansky – Can Science Extend Human Life?

September 10, 2010

At a recent conference in Lake Tahoe, demographer S. Jay Olshansky presented a roomful of technologists with an exciting prospect. Through a concerted scientific attack on the problem of aging, he suggested, we might be able to extend human life by as much as 7 years on average.

Olshansky’s strategy is not simply to keep battling individual diseases, like cancer, in isolation. Rather, it’s to go after the underlying process that brings on those diseases to begin with.

The field of aging has long been beset by questionable claims—by hucksters try to sell us the fountain of youth. By contrast, Olshansky suggests there may be a modest, but scientifically attainable, version of human life extension that would benefit us all. On this episode of Point of Inquiry, he discusses how it might be possible, and what a world in which we all live significantly longer would look like.

S. Jay Olshansky is a Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His work focuses on estimating the upper limits to human longevity and pursuing the scientific means to slow aging in people.  Dr. Olshansky is the author, with Bruce Carnes, of The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging.

Above photograph by Kevin Miyazaki.

Today’s show is brought to you by Audible. Please visit Audible podcast dot com slash point to get a free audio book download. This is Point of Inquiry for Friday, September 10th, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. Before getting to our program, I want to remind you that point of inquiry is sponsored by audible dot com. Audible is the Web’s leading provider of spoken audio, entertainment, information and educational programing. An Amazon dot com company, Audible, has a roster of 75000 books for download to your computer, iPod or c.D. So let’s say you’re indulging the American dream. You’re gonna drive your car across the country. You know, you’ve always wanted to try it. But then you get to like Iowa and all you’re getting on the radio is a bunch of Christian rock stations. Aren’t you gonna wish you’d become an audible dot com user and had something good to pop in? It’s a long drive ahead of you. So my recommendations this go to the following Web site, audible podcasts, dot com slash point and get a free ebook download. Pick a long one. Or better yet, become a member. Last month, I had the privilege of attending a conference called Techonomy, a new philosophy of Progress. It was the kind of conference that has Bill Gates as an attendee and speaker. But I was drawn to one of the smaller sessions where our current guest was talking very seriously about how to extend the average human lifespan. It’s a topic I’d written on half a decade ago. But now scientists like S.J Olshansky increasingly think it might be the real deal. So I wanted to have Olshansky on the show to discuss with her life extension is really possible and what a world in which we all live longer might look like. S Jail Sanski is a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His work focuses on estimating the upper limits to human longevity, as well as pursuing the scientific means to slow aging in people. Dr. Olshansky is the author with Bruce Carnes over the quest for immortality. 

Science at the Frontiers of Aging. Sanski, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Pleasure to be here. 

It’s great to have you. I wanted to have you on the show after I attended a session at the recent Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe. You were right there in the room with Google’s Larry Page talking about the best prospects for extending the span of the human life through some type of intervention or pill. So let’s talk about this. You think this is an increasingly realistic prospect? 

Well, if you had asked me 10, 15 years ago, I would have said, no, it’s not realistic at all, at least in the short term. But a lot’s happened since then. There’ve been a lot of scientific advances that have led a number of scientists, myself, among them, to believe that it’s now actually plausible. And not only is it plausible that we can develop an intervention that slows aging, but I think it’s absolutely essential that we pursue it. And the reason is fairly straightforward. The current medical model, the way in which we deal with disease today, is to essentially attack them one at a time. Heart disease, cancer, stroke, all independent of each other. Leaving alone the basic underlying process of aging, it influences them all. Well, we are now suggesting is the time has arrived to go after the foundation of everything that goes wrong with us as we grow older. And that means attacking aging itself. 

And you think we can get longer healthy life, right? Not just longer life, because, of course, nobody would want this if it means an extra decade in the hospital. 

Well, that’s correct. The only thing we are talking about is the extension of healthy life. I’ll be frank. I don’t really talk about life extension itself, although I’m certain that that would be the product. One of the byproducts of this effort, the only thing we talk about is the extension of healthy life. By how much is uncertain. We have a goal in mind that we’d like to pursue. There are some people who like to have immortality as a goal. It’s fun to talk about, I think, but unrealistic and also unmeasurable, by the way. But, you know, there are realistic goals that I think can be achieved in our lifetime. And the benefits to those individuals and to the countries in which they live would be huge. 

And I understand there is evidence from a variety of other species showing that you can in some way change how long they live. 

Yes, there’s no question that duration of life can be extended in a wide variety of species using caloric restriction, a reduction of caloric intake. Whether or not that would be the case in humans, we don’t know yet. It would be it would likely be the case, but we don’t know for certain. There have been a number of genetic interventions in a number of species that have extend the duration of life. There’ve been studies of roundworms, of mice, of dogs, yeast, life extension has been achieved in all of these. And remember, life extension has been achieved in humans. Think about it for a second. The life expectancy way back in nineteen hundred was about forty nine. Now it’s about 80 or so. And so we’ve achieved significant life extension in humans, but not because we’ve altered aging, but because we’ve altered specific diseases or specific causes of death, especially those that kill early. So yes, there’s plenty of evidence that life extension can be accomplished. Whether or not that life extension is a product of delayed aging or delayed disease is a matter of question. 

Well, it is. I think I’m hearing something of a big change from the year 2002. You and some other scientists wrote an essay in Scientific American. It was entitled No Truth to the Fountain of Youth. And I interviewed you back then. You were really eager to debunk anti aging quackery, of which there is a great deal. So. So why the change in tone? 

Nothing has changed since that article was published. What we said then was correct. And if I would say the same thing today, there is no such thing as an anti aging medicine that exists today. In spite of people trying to sell it to us, a point we were trying to make back in 2002 is that there’s lots of people hawking anti aging medicines with no evidence that they work. What we’re saying now is these interventions that can slow aging or somewhere in the future, hopefully in the near future, and we should be aggressively pursuing them. So don’t mix up the two. Previously, we said they don’t exist. We were right then and we’re right now by saying the exact same thing. 

One thing we really are interested in on point of inquiry is sort of debunking. Quackery, bad science, pseudoscience, those sorts of claims, and there is a ton of bogus stuff out there when it comes a life extension, which was, I think, what you were trying to get at in 2002 in Scientific American. If we could have a real working drug out there, would it be the case, you think, that some of the some of the bad stuff would go away? 

No, fortunately, unfortunately, I think it would get worse because what happened, the way in which it works is as soon as real scientists come up with any sort of potential intervention. The nonscientists snap it up and try to sell it immediately. And you saw this with resveratrol a few years ago. I mean, there’s a legitimate science involved in the study of resveratrol and its potential impact on decelerating aging. And people started selling it on the Internet. You know, probably within weeks of the first article coming out suggesting that it might work. So what they’re doing is they’re capitalizing on potential that has yet to be realized by science or certainly backed up by science. So, no, as we continue to make progress in the world of science, the hucksters will only grow stronger. 

Well, that’s that’s unfortunate. But nevertheless, some people may benefit. So let’s say you say that you’re right. 

All this evidence is pointing the direction at least some some intervention might become possible in the future. What are we actually going to do to intervene in humans? Because we’re not going to genetically engineer ourselves like we do to mice. We’re not going calorically restrict ourselves like some people do and essentially go on a hunger diet. What are we going to actually be able to do? 

Well, all right. It’s going to have to be a type of intervention. That is that is something that people can do and can do easily and hopefully relatively inexpensively. Now, at the Techonomy meeting, this issue came up and I was glad to answer this question. It’s my my personal view. There are many pathways, I think, towards decelerated age in which one is ultimately going to prove to be the right one or the best one. I don’t know. But to me, one of the most promising approaches, cake is right under our noses, and that is the parent decelerated, aging, healthy life extension we already observe in subgroups of humans. Some people live very healthy, very long past 100 or even 110 years. And clearly the secret to their exceptional longevity is contained within their genome. And I think identifying what those genes are finding a way to identify those genes, what gene products are produced by those genes, replicating those in a laboratory, whether it be a pharmaceutical company that does it or some other company, and introducing that back in the form of a pill, I think is the most palatable at this point. And you overcome by doing it this way, by the way, you overcome many of the problems associated with interspecies extrapolation. You don’t know, for example, if you increase the lifespan the way in which it’s done for these other animals, whether it’s going to have a systemic effect on all aspects of aging in humans or whether it’s just going to affect the physical body and not the mind. The last thing we want to have happen is life extension of the body without extending the functioning of the mind. That would be a disaster. And so we have to be real cautious. But we’ve already observed this in older humans living out past the hundred thousand men who make it out. They’re extremely healthy with their minds and bodies intact. 

Centenarians are certainly a fascinating topic. And I read somewhere that a twin of a centenarian has a overwhelmingly higher chance of becoming one themself than, you know, someone who isn’t related to one. So that would suggest that it is genetics. I also understand that there are certain groups of people where you have a higher percentage of of people live to be 100 years old. Could you speak to that? Is that who we have to go study? 

Yes. I mean, there there are subgroups across the globe. There appears to be a subgroup in Okinawa, Japan and Sardinia, Italy. I think there’s a group in California, Seventh and Seventh Day Adventists. I think there’s a subgroup in Nova Scotia, in Canada. But there are centenarians and super centenarians in other parts of the world as well. And, you know, those pockets are interesting. But I would study people in all parts of the world. I mean, in a way, some of those interesting people to study would be the ones that have made it out past 100 or 110 who lived atrocious lifestyles like John Coleman was the longest lived human doc documented by by scientific method shmita. Two hundred twenty two and a half years. She smoked for a hundred years. So clearly, smoking was not a risk factor for her. So something was protecting her from the kinds of things that kill the rest of us when we smoke. So, you know, to me, some of the most interesting people to study are the ones that live the most atrocious lifestyles and make it out to exceptionally old ages healthy. And they’re all all across the world. 

Well, what is the status for funding this kind of research right now? Do we have enough through the. Institutes of Health, do we need. Need more? 

There is barely any money being spent in this type of research. The vast majority of the research money at NIH goes towards specific diseases. And I understand that. And I understand the logic behind it. I mean, that’s how NIH arose. I think convincing physicians, convincing other scientists that aging is worthy of study has been difficult, in part because of all the quackery. I would point out that’s harmed us in many ways. And it’s actually one of the reasons why I’ve been quite vocal against the quackery, because I think it actually harms the funding for legitimate scientific research. So the bottom line is very, very small amounts of money are actually currently devoted to going after decelerate aging. And I think that should increase dramatically. A couple of years ago in an article and the scientist, we published the piece called In Pursuit of the Longevity Dividend. And in that article, we made the case that a three billion dollar investment annually for just a few years would probably lead to an intervention that slows aging within a relatively short time period more than paying for itself. And it would have a dramatic positive economic benefit for the individuals that benefit from this and for the countries in which they live. 

Well, let’s go on to talk about that benefit, because I think when people hear about this, the first thing they think is some pharmaceutical company getting a big benefit in getting really rich because people pay a lot for this pill. I’m assuming that that’s part of the economic growth. But what are the other ways in which you think that this is clearly going to be a net benefit? 

Well, think about it for a minute. I mean, it you know, currently we have a certain period of time that most people who make it’s older ages experience frailty and disability before death. And some of the largest the highest costs associated with end of life occur really in the in the last year. But even prior to that, in a couple of years prior to that, health care costs and expenses can be extraordinarily high. And also, remember, when people are frail and disabled, they’re not working. They’re not traveling. They’re not really contributing that much to the economy except for the medical establishment. If you can keep people healthier longer, not only will many of them continue to work longer by choice, remain in the labor force longer, can contribute money to the economy longer. 

You know, when you’re healthy, your financial footprint is much more dramatic than when you’re not healthy. And if you can achieve that at a population level, it is absolutely amazing how a country would benefit by simply extending healthy life by a few years. Now, the other point to remember is that decelerated process of aging experienced in individuals, if it occurs the way we think it’s going to occur, would also compress morbidity and disability into a shorter duration of time near the end of life. So the costs, the frailty, the disability, all of the negative things associated with end of life would be compressed into a very short time period. It would be much less expensive. 

It’s interesting because, you know, as a as a demographer, you know, that populations across the world are actually aging right now. And that’s led a lot of people to say, you know, by a lot of pharmaceutical stocks, by a lot of health care stocks, organize spending more on this, not less. And that’s the kind of objection that you often get, which is that you’re saying exactly the opposite. 

Well, if we can decelerate aging generally, the view is correct. I mean, we know we know populations are going to age dramatically in the coming years. Now, remember that age dramatically means a shift in the age structure. So the proportion of the total population that is 65 and over 85 and over is going to inevitably rise dramatically. So if, you know, if you think you can make money on investments in pharmaceutical companies that deal with this older population, by all means. 

What we’re suggesting is that that decelerated aging, if experienced by a population, will delay quite significantly many of the costs, the negative costs, both physical and financial associated with with living out into these outer regions of the lifespan. So, yes, I am providing a counter argument, but it requires decelerated aging. Let me point out, by the way, that if we don’t do this, if we don’t find a way to slow aging and we continue to make incremental progress against heart disease, cancer and stroke as we’re now doing, we may very well produce the very opposite effect of what I’m talking about. We may very well prolong the period of frailty and disability in old age. 

Remember, if you don’t die from heart disease, if somehow you’re saved from dying from heart disease, you haven’t eliminated your risk of all other diseases and disorders that crop up at older ages. And since ultimately disease and death is zero sum games, if you reduce the risk of death from one disease, you ultimately increase the risk of another. And we have to be cautious what we’re trading off for. We want to make sure that with it that we’re trading off for healthier life rather than an unhealthy life. The classic example is a colleague of mine that I work with. His name is Bruce Curran’s. His father had coronary bypass surgery in his late 50s. He was saved by medical technology. He was allowed to live, I think, in another another 27 years. The vast majority of those years were healthy. But the last seven, he experienced Alzheimer’s disease. So there was a tradeoff. You know, he got 20 healthy years. And in exchange, he had to pay for that with seven years of Alzheimer’s disease. So we have to be careful what we wish for. We don’t want that life extension unless we know those are healthy years. 

What about religious views on aging and life extension? Do you anticipate that there’ll be any objections that will emerge based on some sort of sense that we shouldn’t be interfering with what’s naturally the way things are? Are the normal course of our lives? Or will those views be more mixed? Some pro. Some con? 

Oh, I’d love to get into a debate with some someone from the religious right on this particular issue. Or maybe it’s the left. I don’t know where they’re coming from, but it’s a ridiculous argument to suggest that, you know, that we shouldn’t be fighting against human nature. All of us are. What are you what do you think we’ve been doing for the last hundred years? I mean, the reason why we live so long now is because we’ve been fighting against human nature. We’ve insulated ourselves from the outside world. We protected ourselves from the infectious diseases that normally kill us. Know are they suggesting we should bring back infectious diseases? Are they not inoculating their children? You know, if they have a heart attack, don’t they go to the doctor and have treatment for it? Did they not take aspirin for for pain? I mean, it makes no sense to me to make the argument that we’re, you know, somehow violating nature’s plan. Well, I should hope for violating nature’s pledge. 

Let’s talk about the positive side of things. I mean, do you see a world in which people think I’m gonna have one career, I’m going to be a lawyer then I’m never second career. I’m going to be a doctor. I’ll spend about 25, 30 years that each of them. I mean, is that what we’re we’re looking forward to? 

I think that choice should be available to us. And I I think that that is in part what. We would offer if we could extend healthy life. People can make the choice later in life to choose a different career, no matter what it is, whether it’s, you know, if you’re a physician. The first part of your life and you want to be a humanitarian. The latter part of your life, wonderful. Whatever it is, as long as you have the healthy life to spend on changing careers. That’s what we’re what we’re going after. But in the end, the question that you’re asking is an important one, and that is our fundamental concept of work. Going to have to change as a result of the extension of healthy life. And I think the answer to that is yes. I think that change can, can and will be a beneficial one for those who choose to make it. But it should be a choice that we have, not one that is taken away from us by enabling disease to express itself as it does now at older ages. 

But it would, of course, require some extension of the traditional age of retirement to. You would think or else you’d. This is another objection people would raise. What about Social Security? Healthy people on Social Security for 20, 30 years? 

Well, Social Security would benefit by the extension of healthy life. Many people would continue to remain in the labor force for a longer time period and continue to contribute to Social Security for a longer time period. So, you know, the problem with Social Security and Medicare happens when you get the extension of unhealthy life and then you get people drawn out into the labor force and they’re drawing considerable sums from Medicare or Medicaid in the end and considerable sums from Social Security as medical technology extends the period of unhealthy life. So very argument that is being made or that you’re making here is one that I think is directly against the current medical model. Let’s not prolong the period of unhealthy life. Let’s not prolong the period of old age, because that’s precisely the kind of thing we want to avoid in terms of its potential negative impact on Social Security and Medicare. The greatest benefit to Social Security, Medicare would occur with the extension of healthy life. 

Let’s think about some other possible very big differences to the fabric, the course of our lives if everyone is living significantly longer. Do you think people would write in dates into their marriage contracts, for example? You know, I only want about 25 years of this. 

Well, well, well. If they wrote those in at the beginning where that might be a problem. But you know, you’re right, though. Family life probably would change. 

I don’t know. It’s you know, quite frankly, we can’t tell now. We can’t make a judgment on whether things will be better. They would be different. And I think we have to recognize that. But, you know, it’s different now relative to one hundred years ago. Remember, a good proportion of the children born 100 years ago died before their first year of life. Once you made it past the first four years, you had a decent chance of making it out to 60. But 60, if you made it out to 60 in nineteen hundred, you were considered an older person. Now, 60 is barely middle aged. As far as I’m concerned, and especially since I’m approaching manage, by the way. And so many people have a different outlook on what our concept of old age is based on what’s transpired during the last century. And there’s no reason to believe things would be any different 50 years from now or 20 years from now. If we could find a way to slow aging and make us healthier longer, we will change our views of what it means to grow old. 

Well, let me ask you one final question here. This is a bit speculative, but maybe we can just take a crack at it as as a expert on human aging and as a demographer, if you had to just sort of try to think out to something like the year 2050. How long are people living? How different is it? 

All right. I’ll paint two scenarios for you. Scenario one is, if we fail to slow aging and we do nothing but continue with the current approach to attack one disease in time, I’m guessing we could significantly delay cancer. We could significantly do a heart disease in some cases, possibly even come close to eliminating it for some subgroups of the population. Remember, that’s already happened in Japan. Japan has a life expectancy of about 80 people, over 80 for men and women combined, about 85 for women. And they’ve essentially eliminated heart disease. You could sort of see the future by looking looking at Japan. So I think under those circumstances, we might be able to push out the envelope of survival by a few years by 2050. But what I fear might happen under scenario one is a significant rise in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and other cognitive impairments as a result of an ability to. Long the period of old age by reducing the risk of major fatal diseases. That’s scenario one. And I, I don’t want that one to happen. Scenario two is if we find a way to delay the biological process of aging by, let’s say, seven years. That’s what we proposed in our article in The Scientist a few years ago. Under those circumstances, I think we probably would also get a few years of life expectancy, maybe a few more than is currently predicted. We might actually be able to push the envelope of life expectancy out into the later 80s rather than the mid 80s where it might end up now. So we might get a few extra years and hopefully those few extra years were would be healthy. And under those circumstances, I think the benefits to those individuals that make it out there would be huge. The benefits to society would be huge. The benefits to all future generations would be large. And that is the scenario I would rather see scenario two. And I think it’s a matter of choice. I think we can choose down. We could choose to go down our current pathway. And it’s very tempting to go down that current pathway because that’s what we’ve been doing for most of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. And it’s the easier pathway to take. But I think it’s the one that’s less insightful, the one that has the potential to be a game changer. The one that has the potential to alter our basic biology in favorable ways is the scenario, too. And that’s the one that I think has the potential to dramatically improve life in 2050. And between now and 2050. 

Well, I tell you, it is a tantalizing topic and it is a very different future that we could be heading towards. So I wish you and your fellow scientists the best of luck in this field of studying how to how to change aging. 

Well, everyone listening should hope that we succeed because they benefit. 

Thanks for being on the show, Dr. Orshansky. It’s my pleasure. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about the prospects for human life extension. Be sure to visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry dot net slash forums, then clicking on point of inquiry. Also, don’t forget to go over to Audible podcast dot com slash point for your free audio book download. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney