Today's average human life expectancy is one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine and improved living standards.
In the UK, people can now expect to live to the grand old age of 81, more than 30 years longer than the average life expectancy in the year 1900. In fact, such is the progress, some (admittedly optimistic types), including California-based researcher Abrey de Grey, have predicted the first person to live to 1,000 may already have been born.
But it seems progress has ground to a halt: yesterday Sir Michael Marmot, a professor at UCL, published findings suggesting after more than 100 years of continuous advancement, the UK’s life expectancy has stopped rising. Marmot said he was “deeply concerned” by the situation. He even pointed the finger at government austerity.
But is this such a bad thing? Although the return of the biblical lifespan would be a scientific miracle, it is a breakthrough the UK is not set up to handle. You only need to look at the fortunes of Theresa May, whose manifesto proposal to solve the social care crisis wrecked a 21-point poll lead, or pension schemes which are finding themselves with increasingly unwieldy deficits, to realise the next generation will be hit with a demographic timebomb it cannot diffuse.
Increases in human life expectancies were always going to stagnate: indeed, one study published last year suggested the longest the human body can keep going is 115 years (although the oldest person in history, Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, was 122 when she died in 1997). But the UK’s population is nevertheless expected to reach 77m by 2050, according to Eurostat, with a third over the age of 60.
So the challenge for researchers now is not so much prolonging life, as finding ways to improve the quality of our lives as we grow older, thus ensuring the generations after us are not left with burdens they cannot shoulder. In other words, the challenge is not creating immortality: it is finding a way to ensure the economy is set up so the population can both live long and prosper.