“May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
And may you stay
Forever young” — Bob Dylan. Forever Young. Planet Waves.
“You’ll live to be a hundred years old or more. I can pretty much guarantee that. [Long pause] Plan Accordingly!” That’s a comment I’ve found myself making to friends and family a lot recently as we sip wine and talk about the future. Most of these conversations are with people roughly my own age, in their late forties and early fifties.
It’s interesting to watch their faces as they slowly realize they’re barely half way through their lives. At best, they’ve been thinking, in incremental terms, about the next couple of decades and how they’re going to survive them. Quality of life during their retirement years is something they worry about constantly but most of them are resigned to the inevitable decline of old age.
If I’m talking to one of a younger generation, a twenty or thirty year old, the message is slightly different: “You will live for a hundred more years. Plan accordingly.” A century is a long time. I like to tell them to think about how the world was at the dawn of the 20th century and how different it is today.
The responses I elicit by this remark run the entire gamut from a nervous laugh to mumbling confusion to “Holy crap, you’re right!”
It’s easy to make a chart showing that life expectancy was, say, forty years old a century ago and now stands at roughly 80. Projecting forward, it’s just as easy to predict a life expectancy 100+ in a few decades.
Unfortunately, such charts are skewed by the high incidence of infant mortality in the past. Many scientists have pointed out that it would be misleading to compare data from 1900 (or earlier) to those of 2000 since much of the increase in life expectancy in the recent past is due to elimination of the root causes of childhood diseases and death. It would be more accurate, the argument goes, to exclude that data from the discussion.
According to a study by University of Pennsylvania, “Infants and children — who are especially vulnerable to infectious diseases because of their developing immune systems — accounted for nearly half of all deaths in 1900, while those over 65 accounted for fewer than one fifth. As infectious disease mortality declined and deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer rose over the course of the century, the age distribution of mortality shifted dramatically: By 2013, the infant and child share of deaths was around 1 percent, while the elderly share was nearly three quarters.”
Infectious diseases were easier to defeat than the ones ailing the older population today, so we shouldn’t expect similar increases in life expectancy going forward. That’s the argument anyway.
I beg to differ. We attacked infectious diseases back then because we barely had sufficient technology to solve those types of problems and because they were responsible for a larger percentage of deaths. With advances in modern medicine and genetics as well as the shift in emphasis to diseases of the elderly, we are making rapid progress in solving these conditions today. Not only will we be able to cure these diseases in the coming years, we will also eliminate some through new methods such as gene editing.
I pointed out to a 57-year old friend recently that his 85-year old father is still alive and well, as is mine at 81. Both are survivors of several major diseases, each of which would have easily killed them a few decades ago. In the case of my father, the list includes multiple strokes, two bouts of cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and an insatiable sweet tooth — the classic recipe for adult onset diabetes.
Did I mention he is a child of the Middle East who has lived almost his entire life in a third world country without the benefit of all the latest medical advances? Did I also mention that he has basically never exercised in his life?
My mother has had multiple run-ins with cancer, had half of her stomach removed a decade ago in a fight with stomach cancer, has higher cholesterol than the GDP of most third world nations, and wouldn’t know what to do with a pair of sneakers or a bicycle.
The papers are full of stories of people dying before their time and grizzly tales of death and disease but they rarely tell you about the millions of people who, even if not the picture of health, are at least still standing upright at age 80 and beyond.
If our parents are living into their eighties, are you honestly going to tell me you and I (the typical you and I) can’t live to be 100 years old?
Before you answer, consider that we are talking about an eventuality roughly fifty years in the future. Now walk backwards the same number of years and remember what the world looked like back then.
Back in the good old days of 1968, we were still working on eradicating smallpox and polio. The human genome project was not even a twinkle in someone’s eyes. MRI scanners didn’t even exist yet and no one had ever heard of AIDS. Artificial hearts, smart prosthesics, and gene editing were still the stuff of science fiction.
As for technology, there was no internet, there were no personal computers, there were no smartphones. There was no Google and no Amazon. If you told someone to store their photos in the cloud, they’d think you’re nuts. We didn’t have our groceries being delivered by drones, neither did we have cars that drove by themselves. The age of the Jetsons seems to have arrived while we weren’t paying attention.
Look at all we’ve accomplished in a mere fifty years, then turn around 180 degrees and project forward the same number of years into the future. When you do so, consider that technological progress (including its applications to medical science and genetics) is exponential in nature, that we have already hit the knee of the curve, and that our progress will be even more rapid in the future.
Alzheimer’s. Cancer. Diabetes. Heart Disease. Bah Humbug! Bring it on! We will defeat them all.
You will live to be 100 years old. Now, you can choose to be a sick miserable 100-year old or you can help your own cause by living a healthy life, by exercising, by reducing your stress level, by eating properly, by keeping your mind sharp. The doctors and scientists will keep us alive. The quality of the experience is up to us.
Yes, sure. I know you have a genetic predisposition for cancer. I do, too. But that doesn’t mean you need to compound the problem by bringing on diabetes with your diet, clogged arteries with your lack of exercise, and enforced mental obsolescence, thanks to your unwillingness to read a book — ever — after you get out of school. Romance novels don’t count. Neither do “historical” works such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter!
It’s not too late. You will live to be 100 years old. I promise. Plan accordingly. Do your part.
At this point in the discussion, there’s usually some serious mumbling going on as my friend or relative asks me to pour some more wine and starts rethinking his approach to “middle age”.
If I’m talking to a twenty-something or a thirty-something, I like to shock them by informing them that they’ll live for another century! The contrast is even more stark between the worlds of 1921, 2021, and 2121.
Back in 1921, most people didn’t own cars. Hell, we barely had paved roads. We had airplanes but no commercial flights yet. Most people never traveled more than a dozen miles from their town or village in their entire lives. We couldn’t imagine going to the moon. We thought it was made of cheese. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit but you get the idea. You would certainly have laughed me out of the room for suggesting that we may send automobiles into space on a whim one day. Yet, here we are!
A century ago, 70% of the world population was illiterate. The Spanish Influenza killed millions around the world and we were seemingly helpless against it. We didn’t know what DNA was, let alone knowing how to edit it.
World War II hadn’t happened yet. Atomic bombs didn’t exist. The Middle East was known for exporting carpets and cats, not oil and fundamentalism. Television didn’t exist. Radio had been invented but there were no commercial radio stations yet nor did anyone have a radio in their homes. You couldn’t make a phone call from New York to London for all the money in the world. Nobody knew who Gandhi, Mandela, and Hitler were, let alone what they stood for or how they would change our world.
I could keep going but you get the idea.
Look at everything that has happened in the past century, both positive and negative. Look at all the advances in science, the increased literacy level of humans and the massive amount of data available at our fingertips, then turn around 180 degrees, face forward, and project a hundred years into the future. Because you will live that long. I pretty much guarantee it.
The world of 2121 will be as alien to us as the world of today is to those living a hundred years ago. The major diseases of today will all be a thing of the past. As for what the world will actually look like, I wish you the best of luck but you’re on your own. I have about as much luck predicting the world of 2121 as your great grandpa had of predicting the Internet of Things or Amazon Prime.
It’s only when I force people to think in these terms, on the scale of 50 or 100 years, that they take their eyes up from the page (or their iPhone) and take a broader look around them. They’re definitely not comfortable doing so, being preoccupied most of the time with the next few days or weeks — or at best the next few months and years.
The simple fact that you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone to think in those terms should be an indication that doing so is good for you. Now, go plan accordingly.
Don’t just think about your next job, think about your next career. Don’t just think about your grandchildren sitting on your lap in a few years, think about going for a hike with your great grandchildren in a few decades. Don’t just think about surviving, think about thriving.
You have a lot of time in front of you and you’re the only one who can control how you use it.