“Living to 100? Oooh, that would be awful. You’d just be old for ages.”
That was the reaction of many to the prediction by scientists that many babies born today will live to see 2109. Awful? I’m sorry. The centenarians of the future are going to have a brilliant time, and I hope that I’m among them.
We’re moving into a new era of personalised medicine, where genetic screening will tell you the diseases from which you’re at risk and your doctor will tell you what to do about it. The advice need not be high-tech or expensive: one recent study showed that drinking coffee in middle age is remarkably protective against Alzheimer’s disease.
And in the future even a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s will not spell interminable decline. Scientists have shown that introducing genes that promote growth into the brain can reverse the loss of brain fibres that takes place during Alzheimer’s. Similarly, electrical and magnetic brain stimulation are showing promising results for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
Through prevention and cure the dreaded spectre of mental decline will be lifted from old age. Some people might even choose to take things a step farther — what makes an ill person well could make a well person even better. The old people of the future may well be dabbling in brain enhancement.
One of the biggest disabilities in old age is loss of vision and blindness. Genetic therapies, artificial lenses and increasingly sophisticated laser treatments mean that in 100 years there is every reason to expect that debilitating loss of eyesight will be endured by the unfortunate few, not the majority.
Scientists are also making amazing advances in prosthetics. Gone will be the days of the cane, the mobility scooter, the Zimmer frame. Look forward to a future where prosthetic bones are not merely a limb replacement, but an opportunity to improve the imperfect design of the human body.
Finally, and perhaps most exciting of all, are the possibilities of stem cell research. We are approaching a point where scientists can take a skin cell and turn it into a pluripotent “master cell” that will grow any type of tissue in the body, brain cells, muscle or bone. This is already possible in mice.
Scientists and surgeons are not on a mission to give us 20 extra years in purgatory, linked up to life-support machines. The whole point of hard graft in the lab is for us to enjoy healthier, happier lives.
Newborns, forget the slow bleak decline into codgerdom: get ready for the glory years.
Hannah Devlin, a science writer for The Times.