A Matter of Life Expectancy

By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 20 2021
Columns A Matter of Life Expectancy

By Michael Gregson 

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the largest falls in life expectancy since the second world war in most developed nations, with American men suffering the most severe losses.

A study of death records across 29 countries, spanning most of Europe, the US and Chile, found 27 nations experienced reductions in life expectancy in 2020 at a scale that wiped out years of progress on mortality, according to research led by scientists at the University of Oxford. Men suffered larger life expectancy declines than women across most Nations. The largest declines in life expectancy were observed among males in the US, who experienced a decline of 2.2 years relative to 2019 levels.

 “For western European countries such as Spain, England and Wales, Italy, Belgium, among others, the last time such large magnitudes of declines in life expectancy at birth were observed in a single year was during world war two,” said José Manuel Aburto, the study’s co-lead author. Before the pandemic struck, Sri Lanka was doing well. In March 2020 the average Sri Lankan was expected to live up to 77 years – four more years than the global average. Women could expect to reach 80 – 3 per cent more than male life expectancy. 

Only time will tell the full impact of COVID-19 on longevity on the island. While life expectancy is falling around much of the world, a small group of billionaires are trying to spend their way to achieving massively extended lifespans. From cryogenics to drugs the dream of immortality is closer than ever for the ultra-wealthy. Some of the world’s richest men, including space tourism enthusiast Jeff Bezos, are putting their weight behind the research. 

Amazon boss Bezos is one of the main backers of Altos Labs, which has raised more than $200 million and just opened a new laboratory in Cambridge. But Bezos, worth over $150 billion, is far from being the only one taking on the grim reaper.

 Google co-founder Sergey Brin has invested more than $800 million in a “longevity lab” called Calico. And Paypal founder Peter Thiel has pledged millions to the similarly-tasked SENS Research Foundation. Longevity expert Michael Rae of the SENS Foundation in California, tells the British Sunday People that the science of living forever is making huge leaps forward. As well as being backed by Thiel, his SENS group has also had meetings with Bezos. 

And with big-money backing, he is optimistic the secret to eternal life can be cracked by 2050. But because the technology is so expensive to develop, it will be available only to the rich for the foreseeable future. Some scientists believe that once the technological fountain of youth is created, life expectancy could be raised to around 1,000 years – for the very few who could afford it. 

They claim the only causes of death will then be bad luck – and stupid mistakes. Rae revealed: “Bezos is taking a gamble on a technology that is harder to realise – but it’s going to have a really big payoff if they can make it work. Will this happen in five years or 10 years? Absolutely not. But in a quarter of a century, quite possibly yes.” The goal of the SENS Foundation is to “comprehensively repair the damage that builds up in our bodies over time”. One research strand is seeing if backup copies of cells can be created to replace malfunctioning ones. 

The new cells would be implanted in our flesh so they can take over when our system starts to degrade. This would mean we can refurbish our bodies time and again – like we replace faulty chips in a computer. Michael Rae, a science writer at SENS foundation, explains: “Right now, every year you live, you’re closer to your doom. Once you take away ageing, it becomes open-ended. That doesn’t mean you’re immortal – you can still be murdered or hit by a catastrophic infection like Ebola, or die in a plane crash. 

“But you are no longer going to be more vulnerable to disease and death. At that point, if you do the maths on how unlikely it is to die, it gives a life expectancy of about 1,000 years.” Just imagine Bezos and his billionaire pals getting richer and richer for a millennium from their hideaways in space while mere mortals struggle to survive on Earth. More of a nightmare than a dream.

By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 20 2021

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