In start-up companies and research labs around the world, scientists are working toward a goal of pushing the human lifespan far beyond what is considered possible.
For example, hedge fund manager Joon Yun is challenging researchers to unlock the secrets of longevity, make humans healthier, able to overcome disease and stop age-related disorders that can shorten lifespans. To entice research teams, he’s offering $1 million; so far, 15 teams from across the globe have signed on for his Palo Alto Longevity Prize.
Yun is not the only believer in extending human life beyond its current maximum of about 120 years. Google, biotech companies and private investors like Larry Ellison are developing age-defying drugs, and studying the human genome to discover what makes people live longer and healthier lives. In these circles, extending the human lifespan indefinitely – up to 1,000 years – is not beyond the realm of possibility.
How Medical Breakthroughs Have Extended Life
Thanks to advances in medicine, life expectancy in developed nations has risen since 1900 from about 47 years to about 80 years. Many breakthroughs addressed childhood diseases, and vaccines have been developed to prevent smallpox, tetanus, polio, measles, diphtheria and typhus. Other medical developments have also had major impacts on lifespan:
- Anesthesia: In 1846, William T.G. Morton demonstrated how ether could make surgery tolerable and safer.
- Advancements in childbirth: Women commonly died during childbirth until the mid-20th century. Cesarean section, forceps birth and anesthesia enabled women to survive previously deadly complications.
- Antisepsis: In hospitals, a sterile environment is a given, but this wasn’t always the case. Antisepsis changed the fact that while surgery saved lives, patients often died from post-op infection.
- Antibiotics: Penicillin and other antibiotics, along with antivirals, enabled treatment for bacterial and viral illnesses that previously meant near-certain death.
- Organ transplants: The first organ transplant didn’t occur until 1954, but today tens of thousands of people await organ transplants across the U.S.
- Radiologic imaging: X-rays were developed in the late 1800s, followed by computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound imaging. Physicians routinely peer inside bodies to prepare for surgeries or diagnose disease and injury, saving countless lives in the process.
Advancing Medical Technology
Some scientists try to cure cancer, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Others work on medical technology that can detect disease more quickly or expand the human body’s ability to combat it. Here are some breakthroughs with potential to extend our lifespans:
- Replaceable body parts: Tracheas, ears, noses and faces have been fashioned from stem cells, while researchers continue to study ways to bring that technology to creating other tissues and organs. Regenerating these body parts can potentially treat or cure diseases of the spinal cord and other degenerative conditions, such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
- Limb transplants: Surgeons have successfully transplanted single and double arms and hands that allow people to live more independently.
- Brain sensors: People who have been paralyzed by strokes, injuries or accidents can have sensors implanted in their brains to control devices such as robotic arms with their thoughts. Eventually, this technology will transfer to a patient’s own arms and legs.
Smart Pills and 3D-Printed Body Parts
Soon, you and your physician will have the ability to track your medication, search for tumors or find infections through a pill. Scientists have developed miniature cameras, computer chips, sensors and robots small enough to put inside a pill. Once swallowed, they can detect what’s happening inside your body, with previously unimaginable detail.
Currently, the technology is in use to inform doctors and family members whether elderly people are taking their daily medications. Future prototypes will live in the bloodstream and send a message whenever signs of infection, heart attack or other serious issues are present. The Swiss pharmaceutical firm Novartis is seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration to use chips in its medication for transplant patients that minimizes the chance of organ rejection.
Another medical development builds on 3-D printing technology that uses digital models and special printers to build objects like automobile parts, food and toys. Soon, they may be printing human organs from tissue to replace those that wear out as we age.
Researchers can create various parts from stem cells, but 3-D printers have the potential to build much more complicated organs, including vascular systems that make them viable. These ready-for-transplant organs are years away, but the technology, called bioprinting, that will make them possible is rapidly emerging.
Researchers are now successfully creating liver tissue, partly in response to a foundation’s offer to award $1 million to the first organization to print a fully functioning liver. Every day in the U.S., the shortage of available organs leads to 18 deaths, but it’s clear that 3-D printed organs can potentially put an end to death from organ failure.
Healthcare: Where Technology Changes Lives
While smart pills, 3-D technology and brain sensors will revolutionize the way physicians diagnose and treat a wide array of conditions, some worry that this technology can be taken too far. Certainly legal and ethical considerations must be weighed with all new medical breakthroughs.
The future of healthcare promises more exciting developments, many of which now seem unimaginable. The science of saving lives and expanding human lifespans means endless possibilities and enormous opportunities in the healthcare field.