New technologies that will allow us to live even longer will pay economic dividends

THERE is little downside to the wonderful reality that human beings are now living longer than ever before. While many assume that society’s economic burden radically increases with greater longevity, the reality is the opposite. Everyone is better off because of longer life expectancies.

For example, in 1850, life expectancy in the United States was 43 years. Today it is close to eighty. That’s almost a doubling of lifetime, but it’s not just life that has extended, there has also been an extension of health spans. Yes, there have always been people who made it past 65 years in the past, but the difference today is that there are many more of them and they are in much better shape than ever before.

In the United States, a National Long-Term Care Survey found that “chronic disability among older Americans has dropped dramatically, and the rate of decline has accelerated during the past two decades.” Clearly, the old are no longer quite so old – and new technologies will accelerate that trend. Biology has now become an engineering project. Just as computer programs consist of 1s and 0s, the human body also has a code which is made up of the A,C,T, and Gs of DNA. Human genome sequencing is becoming exponentially cheaper each year, and top-notch scientists are working on reverse engineering the human body through gene therapy and other techniques.

One of the most promising methods to extend health today goes by the name of tissue engineering, which offers the ability to build new organs for those that have worn down, using a patient’s own adult stem cells. Already, scientists have grown and successfully transplanted human organs, such as bladders and windpipes, for patients in need. Human hearts and lungs have not been completed yet, but promising work in lab animals suggests it will be possible in the near term. Once there exists a large enough parts list, doctors will be able to keep patients healthy by replacing parts as they wear down, somewhat similar to how vintage cars are kept in tip top shape well past their expected lifetimes.

But how will greater health spans impact the economy? The answer is that we will be richer as we live longer. That is because as health spans extend, each individual can be productive for a longer period of time. Detailed economic research shows this to be true.

For instance, University of Chicago economists Kevin Murphy and Robert Topel have calculated that, for Americans, “gains in life expectancy over the century were worth over $1.2m per person to the current population.” They also found that “from 1970 to 2000, gains in life expectancy added about $3.2 trillion per year to national wealth.” These enormous numbers represent a spectacular accomplishment in terms of benefits. But aside from what life is valued at, it is also the case that real income grows with greater longevity.

Harvard economist David Bloom and Queen’s University economist David Canning show that if there are “two countries that are identical in all respects, except that one has a 5 year advantage in life expectancy,” then the “real income per capita in the healthier country will grow 0.3-0.5 per cent per year faster than in its less healthy counterpart.” While these percentages might look small, they are actually quite significant, especially when one considers that between the years of 1965 to 1990, countries experienced an average per capita income growth of 2 per cent per year. When countries only have an average growth of 2 per cent, an advantage of 0.5 per cent is quite the boost.

Now, those numbers are based only on a five year longevity advantage. What if a country had a 10, 20, or 30 year advantage? The growth may not continue on a linear basis, but if the general rule holds – a jump in life expectancy causes an increase in economic growth per capita – then having a longer-lived population would facilitate enormous differences in economic prosperity. This helps to explain why there is a movement among some academics and activists to urge the US Congress to spend more on anti-ageing research in order to create what they call a “longevity dividend”.

Regenerative technologies such as tissue engineering, personalised medicine, nanotechnology, and gene therapy hold the potential for ushering in much longer and healthier lives, making it imperative that we press ahead with these innovations – and the sooner, the better.

Longer lives allow for more education, more careers, more ambition, and importantly, more productivity. The benefits of greater health are not only measured in greater happiness, but also on the bottom line. Businesses should be doing everything in their power to make the longevity revolution happen faster – they can’t afford not to.

Sonia Arrison is author of 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith. She is also a Trustee at the California-Based Singularity University.