Though human progress is generally difficult to measure, there is one domain where we’ve clearly and consistently moved forward as a species: biological health.
Over the past 150 years, the average life expectancy has marched upward at a steady rate of about 2.5 years per decade, and today a newborn baby from anywhere in the world is expected to live more than twice as long as if they were born in 1870.
If these historical trends were to continue, we could see the average life expectancy rise another 5 years in the next 2 decades, from 73 to 78 globally, and from 79 to 84 in the United States – a remarkable achievement. But thanks to technology and our ever-growing understanding of the human body, some experts believe longevity could improve even faster.
“Ninety could be the new 40 in the near future,” says Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer emeritus at the Cleveland Clinic, author, and longevity expert. “And life expectancy could increase somewhere between 25 and 35 years in the next decade.”
The longevity increases we’ve witnessed thus far have been due mostly to improvements in maternal health, surgery, and disease management. And today, most doctors point to fundamental lifestyle changes we can make that will help increase the odds of a longer, healthier life. Those fundamentals include exercise, sleep, stress management, nutrition, and human connection.
But technology also has a role to play. As we understand more about the aging process at a cellular level and what causes the human body to flourish (and falter), we’re uncovering new ways to help people live longer, healthier lives. Roizen and other longevity experts, including Dr. David Perlmutter, are studying what we might expect in the future from new health innovations.
“Not only will people have a better shot at living to be 100,” says Perlmutter, a board certified neurologist and author who serves on the board of directors and is a Fellow of the American College of Nutrition. “But in their later years, they will struggle less and still be able to participate in life.”
Existing medicine, emerging potential
In the world of innovation, it’s not uncommon to develop a new product or technology only to later find out that the ideal use for that technology is much different than the original intent. Bubble wrap, for example, was originally designed to be 3D wallpaper. Several years passed before its inventors realized it would be valuable as a packaging material.
The same holds with drugs and medication. Rogaine was created to help lower blood pressure, which it did. But it also had the unintended side effect of increased hair growth.
And recently, some drugs prescribed for other conditions have been found to have pro-aging support. Two medicines in particular, which alter metabolism on a cellular level, have shown early promise.
For instance, metformin — a drug taken by over 120 million people for prediabetes or type 2 diabetes — may indirectly increase longevity, researchers say, based on early studies in animals and humans.
Metformin helps lower blood sugar after meals and keeps baseline blood glucose lower. It also enhances insulin sensitivity, reduces oxidative stress, and has protective effects on your heart and blood vessels.
The potential of metformin to keep blood sugar levels low may help people avoid common chronic health issues, Roizen explains. High blood glucose levels are associated with fatty liver disease, the growth of cancer cells, inflammation, heart disease, stroke, and dementia, he adds.
Rapamycin is the other most talked about medication that’s shown promise as a pro-aging support or longevity drug. Healthcare professionals first used this drug in organ transplant recipients to prevent their bodies from rejecting the new tissue. People with certain cancers also take it to slow tumor growth.
Rapamycin also works at the cellular level to alter our bodies’ growth functions. The drug modulates our immune systems, which can have a positive effect when dealing with immune disorders, but could also suppress our body’s protection when we need it. That’s one reason medical experts are cautious of the more widespread use of rapamycin and why it’s always important to consult a medical professional before taking any medication.
“Does rapamycin have risks?” Roizen says. “Yes. It does suppress your immune system. Do we think it will prove beneficial over the long run? My gut feeling is yes, but we’ll know more in the future.”
The potential for drugs such as rapamycin and metformin is promising, especially considering the possibility of isolating the age-reducing effects and understanding how they work. But as of now, “most of the studies showing the longevity effects of these compounds are in animals,” says Jenny Yu, MD, FACS, senior manager of Medical Integrity at Healthline. “The emerging evidence is exciting, but we are not quite there yet for clinical application.”
Perlmutter points to natural ways of mimicking the effects of these drugs for the time being. For instance, proper nutrition and exercise can have a big impact on insulin sensitivity.
“I think job one is to keep your blood sugar in the optimal range,” Perlmutter says. “You’ll notice, I didn’t say in the normal range — we want the best. So lower areas like 85 to 90. Those are more optimal than a 100 to 105.”
Perlmutter suggests reining in consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates and eating more healthy fat to avoid blood glucose spikes.
Though a pro-aging support pill hasn’t arrived yet, the journey to get there offers us valuable insights into how our bodies age and helps many live healthier lives.
The power of cold
As warm-blooded animals, we’re naturally not very big fans of the cold. But recent research suggests that exposure to cold can help slow the aging process and increase longevity. And some forward-thinking optimists are even exploring the possibilities of extreme cold to preserve our bodies until a time when medical advances have progressed enough to thaw them safely.
Dennis Kowalski, director of the U.S.-based Cryonics Institute, a nonprofit, sees the cold as a life-altering opportunity. Cryonics is a process in which a human (or pet) body is frozen at death at an extremely low temperature for preservation. Then, as medical technology advances, if a technique is discovered to reverse death, those bodies could be “resurrected.”
“A lot of people in the longevity field are interested in cryonics,” says Kowalksi. “It’s kind of like the real-life insurance policy behind all that because science is going to keep advancing.”
It’s an expensive insurance policy, and as of now, it’s a long shot. Several medical and scientific breakthroughs would have to be made, some of which are highly dubious regardless of how long we have to work on them. And the roughly $30,000 price tag makes the practice inaccessible for most people.
But just because the plot of “Forever Young” remains firmly in the science fiction category, for now, doesn’t mean that cold can’t help us live longer. Cold exposure and hydrotherapy have shown real promise in several ways, from helping treat cancer and infection to stress, body composition, and even aging.
One of the ways that cold does that is through brown fat. Brown fat helps with blood glucose, body composition, and energy levels. When exposed to the cold, our body activates brown fat to adapt. Then, even when we’re no longer exposed to cold temperatures, we can continue to reap the brown fat benefits.
Cold-water stimulations have also been shown to reduce the frequency of infections, improve our lung health, and aid with anxiety, one of the biggest causes of chronic disease and aging.
Though we might not all have a cold lake nearby, we can dive into a fancy ice tub like pro athletes. Cold exposure can be as simple as lowering your shower or bath temperature to a level where your body is forced to adapt. You’ll notice the shift through shivering and a change in your breathing. Then it becomes a mental challenge to maintain deep, full breaths and push through the discomfort.
It may not be the most fun — or easy — experiment at first, but studies have shown that our bodies improve quickly in response to the cold, so your shivering should decrease and your breath settle down over time. Not to mention the mental resilience you’ll build!
Getting back to the basics
From one perspective, all of healthcare is about improving life expectancy.
Every patient who’s treated accurately, every new drug that works effectively, every vaccine, each new piece of technology that assists doctors, all these things help more people live longer. Every breakthrough might not be headline-worthy (though often they are), but the progress is an inspiring thing to witness when we can take a step back and acknowledge it.
And those pushing the envelope when it comes to aging may not create the breakthrough they anticipated, but at the very least, they inspire new ideas or could create something that’s later used in a new, unexpected way. Maybe cryonics won’t preserve bodies, but it could have implications in another area of health.
It’s also unclear whether we can extend our maximum lifespan, a metric distinct from longevity. Maximum lifespan refers to the oldest age a human being could hypothetically live to. In the past 50 to 60 years, the range hasn’t moved in one direction or another, with the oldest living person ranging between about 115 and 120 years old. Whether the human body can survive longer than that is a mystery.
But what we do know is that with good health practices, our society can move more people higher along the spectrum so that each new baby born has a better chance at a full and healthy life. “The cumulative effects of our lifestyle can alter our genetics,” says Yu. “It is the persistence of our daily habits that can prolong our lives.”
The future is bright when it comes to improving our global life expectancy. There are exciting, promising technologies that push the envelope of human aging and sound basics we can take advantage of today.