Optimizing Healthspans: branching paths of longevity and death post up

This took me a uper long time to write, resolving my conflicting feelings about extreme longevity as a topic.  This is another one of the Science, Technology and Well-being 20202 Forecasts.

Again, full post available here.

To clear up your first question, (what’s a healthspan?), by healthspan we mean the length of healthy, quality living. In the last hundred years we’ve seen a dramatic lengthening of our life expectancy, and radical life extension hopes to lengthen our lifespans, but what we’re grappling with now and in the next decade is optimizing our chances of those added years being happy and healthy.

So, how will we do that?

 Flickr user kevindooleySource: Flickr user kevindooley

Some methods directly mentioned in the forecast include glimmers of promise in drugs that would rejuvenate aging cells, vaccines that could provide effective treatments for some of our most debilitating age-related illnesses, and bold claims of the possibility of subverting aging entirely. The hyped up world of anti-aging drugs is filled with well-deserved controversy (here’s a nice New Scientist summary of the hubbub last year around resveratrol, the compound found in red wine). But there is still promise in the field, for instance the FDA approved immunosuppressive rapamycin has been shown to extend the lives of old mice.

In other news, researchers recently trumpeted a that a vaccine to halt the progress of Alzheimer’s would be available in two years (!!!). Stay tuned for forthcoming posts on “diagnosing the pre-sick,” another Science, Technology and Well-being 2020 forecast, which lends this development even more potential.

For those of you interested in actual immortality, there’s good news headed your way as well: Dr. Michael Rose writes in Alcor Magazine that he is now persuaded that cellular aging is not a foregone conclusion at all, and that the processes of aging could be stopped altogether. But, as my colleague Jamais Cascio asks in a Ten-Year Forecast Perspective on Extreme Longevity a few years ago, will our societies be ready for centuries-long lifespans?

Some other thoughts on the developments described above and the idea of longevity in general in Alex Carmichael’s post on the topic last year here and here, as well as our FutureCast conversation with Dr. Thomas Perls on the New England Centenarian Study.

Another branch of this forecast is the prospect of increasing quality of life for those who already have chronic medical conditions. For instance, mobile health systems for streamlining diabetes management, or further out, even “microworm” tattoos to monitor blood glucose levels by simply glancing at a patch of skin.

But as more of us manage multiple chronic conditions, we’ll be facing many more trade-offs as we optimize health spans. Dr. May E. Tinetti summed it up quite well:

Patients with multiple conditions should always be asked what their goals are: to live as long as possible, to be as functional as possible or to be as free of symptoms as possible? There’s always a trade-off; you can’t have it all.

A final branch of this forecast extends away from heroic efforts to add years, months, days to life. It focuses on optimizing well-being in that equation: recent research on palliative care in cancer showed that patients who began palliative care earlier actually lived longer in some cases than those who followed aggressive treatments, and had a higher quality of life in their final years.

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