Eppur Si Muove – Life Expectancy

CORRECTION posted Sunday, December 19, 2004: Dr. Aubrey de Grey, mentioned below, is not in fact a gerontologist. He is a computer scientist and research associate in the Department of Genetics with an interest in biogerontology. He and his ideas about life extension were recently profiled in a recent Popular Science article. The article also clears up any misunderstandings about his background.

Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a gerontologist at the University of Cambridge, has optimistically stated in a new essay that “I think the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already.” In his own essay, Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago dismisses the idea as more rhetoric from the “cult of immortality.” He lists similar promises throughout history that never led to greatly extended life.

Dr. Olshansky is missing a very important point. Dr. de Grey’s optimistic statement is based on science. Failed promises from the past have been based on religion or pseudoscience.

Galileo might have responded to life extension critics with “Eppure si muove” – yet still it moves. Led by hand washing and antibiotics, human life expectancy has doubled from 40 to 80 years since the end of the 19th century. Some experts believe that life expectancy will be capped at 120 years. However, this figure has been continuously pushed back by ongoing research into aging.

Interestingly, Dr. Olshansky hedges his bets at the end of his essay by stating “If we happen to live longer as a result [of improvements to “physical health and mental functioning”], then we should consider that a bonus.” Dr. de Grey writes about living to 1000 or longer while performing research to that end. His results will determine whether or not he is too optimistic. Criticism from those who dismiss life extension out of hand will not.