Thursday, September 11, 2008

Listening to Resveratrol

David Kent writes a well balanced article in American Scientist on issues of human longevity. A graphic and some text on the consequences of lifespan-prolonging therapies on population growth and demographic structure:
In the past century, disease-specific medicine reduced mortality at all ages, including the economically productive years between one's 20s and 60s. Historical trends show an increasing "rectangularization" of mortality rates over the past century, meaning that most people survive to an advanced age, at which point there is a precipitous increase in the number of deaths (green curves). Such data have led some researchers to theorize that the human lifespan is reaching an "ideal" length, beyond which substantial extension is not possible. However, discoveries about the basic mechanisms of aging may permit life expectancy to extend beyond this theoretical limit (red curves).

The rectangularization of the mortality curve implies that life-prolonging therapies will add years only at the end of life. Unless there is a shift in the retirement age, 21st-century medical innovation will have an even more dramatic effect on the dependency ratio (a measure of the portion of a population composed of those either too old or too young to work). Maintaining retirement as a widespread option at around 65, already an economic stretch, undoubtedly will become untenable. The price of longer life will almost certainly be a longer work life.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure what point he's making here, "The rectangularization of the mortality curve implies that life-prolonging therapies will add years only at the end of life." Is he saying that society would be frailer as a result of life-prolonging treatments? That doesn't seem to be supported by the figure. Or is he just making the more mundane point that living longer adds years to... the end of one's life?

    As it turns out, calorie restriction (in animal models, at least) prolongs life, but it also prolongs the quality of life. Animals stay healthy longer, and they often stay healthy until the end of life. Presuming that resveratrol does the same (I believe that there is some mouse data to suggest this), it would make people much healthier overall. Even until the end of their lives. Which might mean that we'd have an older but much healthier population. I'm not saying that this will happen (the animal models might not hold...), but it's a pretty exciting possibility.