It’s possible that someone reading this column now, in July 2018, will be alive to see the resolution of a $1 billion bet between Jay Olshansky, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor of public health, and Steven Austad, chairman of biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Eighteen years ago, the two friends began their discussion on an issue that long has intrigued scientists and laymen alike: What is the limit of the human life span? Given that advances in medicine and nutrition dramatically lengthened average life expectancy over the 20th century, where is the ultimate horizon? Will the longevity record — now held by Jeanne Calment of France, who was 122 years old when she died in 1997 — keep getting broken?
Austad, whose research focuses on aging, had made a bold prediction at an academic conference: In the year 2150, he said, there will be a 150-year-old human being.
Olshansky, also an expert on aging, wasn’t having it.
They decided to make it interesting. They each put $150 into an investment fund, and signed a contract specifying that the heirs of the winner will cash it out in 2150.
Early published reports on the wager said the payoff would be from $200 million to $500 million given good market returns, but the men have since doubled their initial investments and they now estimate the final jackpot at roughly $1 billion.
Since they made wager in 2000, average human life spans have inched up, but, interestingly, the longevity record of 122 still stands. In fact, no one with a verified birth date has come within three years of Calment’s mark since she died 21 years ago in August. In this century, no one has even reached age 118 before expiring.
I had a chance encounter with Olshansky in the green room at WTTW-Ch. 11 earlier this year and asked him if, in light of the galloping progress of medicine on all fronts, he was having any second thoughts about his position.
None, he said. If anything, he’s more certain than ever that his descendants — he has one grandchild so far — will be made fabulously wealthy.
In a follow-up interview, he explained: “There will certainly be breakthroughs that will slow many of the biological processes of aging. We’ll be able to extend the number of years that people can live in good health.”
But, he added, “the brain is our Achilles heel. There’s still no evidence to suggest that we’ll be able to halt the effects of the daily loss of nonreplicating neurons, much less reverse it. We can replace hips, knees, hearts and so on, but we can’t replace the brain.”
Those with aspirations to rival Methuselah should accordingly be careful what they wish for, Olshansky said. “Life extension without health extension is a disaster.”
He said, “With early interventions, we might someday see a person live to 130, but that’s adding eight years to the current record and I really don’t see it happening.”
Even if that were to happen, the last person born in the 2000s — the last person with a chance to be 150 in the year 2150 and win the bet for Austad — will be dead in 2130. In that year, a precocious and genetically blessed 5-year-old reading this column in 2018 will be 117. At that point, Olshansky’s heirs could reasonably claim victory.
Won’t happen, said Austad.
He, too, believes more firmly than ever in his position.
“We’re discovering more and more ways every year to make mice live longer through drugs and diet,” he said. “A 150-year-old person is only about 20 percent older than the current record holder, and we’ve found dozens of ways to extend the lives of mice by that much. Not all of them will work with humans, of course, but if any of them do, we’re going to see dramatic results.”
Austad mentioned two drugs that he says have shown particular promise in boosting longevity — rapamycin, an immunosuppressant that helps prevent rejection in transplant patients, and metformin, a prescription medication commonly used to treat Type 2 diabetes.
“Those are my two top candidates,” he said. “But there are a ton of others lining up to enter human trials, and I’m confident there are still more that we don’t know about yet that will be yield breakthroughs. People born today will have a life expectancy of 100.”
It’s now about 80.
“All we have to do in the next 30 years is find drugs that dramatically slow the underlying causes of aging,” Austad said. “If we give them to people approaching 50, some are going to reach the extreme of 150.”
My heart is with Austad, but my head is with Olshansky. And my hopes for the future are vested in 5-year-olds who read the newspaper.
Eric Zorn is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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