A couple of days ago, I read a fascinating article about the potential need to redefine “age”. As it is right now, we define age in simple chronological terms. We take today’s date and subtract from it a person’s birth date. In my case, this yields a value of approximately 52.5 years. While it is true that this is simply a number which has no inherent meaning, our definition of age, and the way in which we relate to age, defines a great part of our society.
A classic example of this is what we call “retirement age”. At the moment, the concept of retiring from active employment is something that is associated with an age range in the 60s. We will often speak of people retiring from work at the age of 65. What many people do not appreciate is that this is not a number which was passed down to us from a divine source. It was not that long ago that people did not tend to live much beyond the age of 60. Therefore, by setting retirement age at 65, our social system was designed to provide for a few years of “the good life” after a person stopped working.
When I was a medical student, I did not see very many patients beyond the age of 70. An 80-year-old patient was considered a candidate for sitting on a mountaintop and providing sagely advice to the masses. Today, 80-year-olds frequent their physicians complaining about new onset hip pain which is interfering with their tennis game. In my years of practice, there has been an astounding improvement in health care and longevity. Today, when a 70-year-old person passes away, our immediate reaction is “what happened” or “he was still a young man”. I personally know individuals who are well into their 80s and even 90s and still have very active lives, and are absolutely sharp as a tack. How do we define “old” in this new reality?
The repercussions of this re-definition are tremendous. We have a huge wave of elder people who are entering retirement age. This baby-boom population is going to be a serious strain on social services and health care unless major changes are made. I’ve spoken before about the tremendous opportunity this older population offers to entrepreneurs who can understand the needs of those over the age of 65. The many millions of people, who will soon be dealing with a whole new phase in their lives, are a tremendous market for new programs and mobile apps that are probably not even yet developed.
I recently read a paper that attempted to redefine age in terms of years left to live, rather than years already lived. So if the life expectancy of people is now 85 to 90, a person of age 70 is considered to still have another 15 to 20 years to live. You can refer to this as “reverse age”. The reverse age of such people is 15 to 20 years. 15 to 20 years is a long time. And if it is not properly managed, it can become a living nightmare for the people in this group. I think it’s fair to say that most social managers are aware of this problem. The question is how best to deal with it.
While I admit that reverse age is a better way of thinking of peoples’ life spans, I think there is an alternative. Unfortunately, this alternative requires a great deal more work to calculate. On the other hand, this alternative would be far more accurate and thus likely to be far more helpful in any social planning.
In my previous blog post, I spoke about the “quantified self” and how we are on the edge of a whole new era where every moment of our lives will be documented. Along with this, many physiological parameters will also be constantly tracked. With sufficient physiological information, it is possible to construct a truer age value. Let’s say we have 50 million people in a database along with a detailed profile of their physiology [manifested as blood tests, various fitness tests, cancer screening results and so on]. For these 50 million people, we will also have historical information about their outcomes. It therefore is relatively easy to imagine a system that compares a present individual to the database of 50 million. Amongst these 50 million people, there are probably a significant number whose physiological parameters match those of the person in question. One then needs to statistically quantify the outcomes of the people in the database, in order to know the “future” of the person before you.
So let’s imagine that we plug-in the values for myself into this database. In return, we are presented with a list of life events along with a statistical likelihood. After reviewing my set of tens to thousands of physiological parameters [collected over many years], the computer might tell me that I have a 20% likelihood of a heart attack within the next 10 years. The computer will likely list a whole range of diseases along with their likelihoods. But somewhere near the bottom, there will be a value for expected longevity. And the computer might very well conclude that I have a reverse age of 20 years. I think it is fair to say that this would be a far more accurate measure of reverse age, and thus allow social planners to far better predict the near future.
I specifically say “near future” because longevity could change overnight. All it takes is for someone in some lab to publish a paper that shows a doubling of lifespan in rats who were treated with a given medication. After human trials are done and prove the value of the medication, the average life expectancy could literally double. There is absolutely no way to predict such a discovery. More importantly, there is no way to plan for the results of such a discovery. Doubling the reverse age of people will introduce an entirely new social situation. Right off the bat, the question will be – who will pay for the day-to-day needs of all of these elderly people who will not be working but will now be living for an additional 40 years?
I wouldn’t dare try to answer such a complicated question in the span of a single blog post. More so, there will be people who will ignore the problem until it is impossible to ignore it. And these people will not be small in number. Also amongst these people in denial, there will be major social decision-makers that we rely on for our day-to-day needs.
We are in the midst of a transformation in the world of medicine. Medicine has been until now a profession that aided people to achieve their genetic potential, in terms of age. We are now transforming into a world of medicine that will break genetic boundaries and change the face of the world. No one is prepared for this. But it is coming. I think it’s time for someone to make an indie movie about the whole topic of endless aging (not youthful immortality, but rather endless aging) . Then Hollywood needs to make an equivalent movie with George Clooney and Christie Brinkley who have already clearly been genetically modified to have a high reverse age. I am sure that these movies will greatly help the discussion.
Thanks for listening