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We're living longer - is that a good thing?
San Francisco Chronicle


March 14, 2006

Harry Weinstein used to think of 93 as ancient. Now that he's reached that age - well beyond today's average life expectancy - he's looking forward to turning 100.

"I'm full of life and hope," he said. "You can't get back what's gone, but you can make the best of what's left."

The retired physician has weathered the loss of his wife, four of his five siblings and many friends. And he's almost always the oldest person wherever he goes. But he enjoys the ballet and the symphony. He has dinner with friends. He finds life rich.



People much older than Weinstein could become the norm, said Stanford University biology and demographics Professor Shripad Tuljapurkar. He believes medical advances in anti-aging technologies could increase Americans' average life expectancy in the near future from just under 80 years to 100. Society needs to consider the possibility, Tuljapurkar argues, because the implications for programs like Social Security are mind bending.

Would retirement begin at, say, 85? How will we care for everyone?

"Let's make sure we think about the implications before we charge out there," with medical advances, he said in his Stanford office.

The Social Security Administration has used Tuljapurkar's research in the past to develop its probability models for population projections. So have other countries.

Tuljapurkar is part of a growing international debate over life expectancy with vast implications for social programs and health care.

At times, the conversation sounds like science fiction. At least one academic, a scientist at the University of Cambridge in England, argues that people could someday live forever. Others contend the obesity epidemic will keep lifespan in check.

For close to a century, life expectancy has risen more than one year every five years. People born at the turn of the 20th century lived an average of 47.3 years, according to tables published by the National Center for Health Statistics. People born in 1950, however, can expect to live 68.2 years, and those born in 2003 can look forward to 77.6 years of life.

From 2010 on, Tuljapurkar said, anti-aging technology already available, such as cancer treatments, could increase lifespan one year every year. By 2030, the average life expectancy in most industrial nations would be 100, if all the available technology were applied.

And he doesn't see this elderly population as infirm or decrepit.

"As lifespan has gone up, we've been able to get people to stay physically, mentally and socially active for longer times," he said.

Jay Olshansky, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies epidemiology and biostatistics, is not as sanguine. People in this country, he said, are just too obese for life expectancy to improve that suddenly.

"I look at the future by looking at today's younger generation," he said. "These extreme optimists don't look at what is around them. All they have to do is walk outside and see the population, and they'll see the obese population that's far different than any previous generation. They need to lift their heads out of the books."

The International Journal of Pediatric Obesity reports today that nearly half the children in the Western Hemisphere and 38 percent of those in the European Union will be obese by 2010, based on data from the World Health Organization and other reports covering 1980 to 2005.

Because obese children tend to carry the problem into adulthood, doctors say they will tend to be sicker as they get older, suffering from heart disease, stroke and other ailments stemming from their weight.

"This is going to be the first generation that's going to have a lower life expectancy than their parents," Philip Thomas, a surgeon unconnected to the journal's research, told the Associated Press. "It's like the plague is in town and no one is interested."

Tuljapurkar argues that people have been getting fatter and living longer for some time. Obesity is a deep concern, but he insisted it's not going to stunt life expectancy.

"Anti-aging technology" isn't magic, Tuljapurkar said. It's simply taking existing technology further.

Thirty years ago, breast cancer was an automatic death sentence, but medical advances allow women with the disease to live longer. And there may soon be other breakthroughs in treating cancer.

"We have a variety of things that have extended lifespan and will likely keep doing it," he said.

Also, people who work in medicine also know a lot more about risk factors for chronic diseases such as diabetes, he said. Diabetes is one of the key side-effects of obesity that other demographers say will rein in life expectancy.

The Social Security Administration, using numbers different from the National Center for Health Statistics' figures, projects that boys born today will live 80.5 years and girls, 84.6 years. To push the average lifespan to 100, society would have to make a concerted effort to advance medical technology - and that's not a given, said Tuljapurkar.

He simply believes it's possible.

Among the people who would like it to happen is Esther Irey, 97, of Castro Valley. Even as a teenager, she liked old people, so a more elderly world sounds good to her. Like Weinstein, she has outlived many family members, friends and neighbors, yet she said she doesn't feel old.

Growing up on a ranch eating homegrown fruits and vegetables - and later taking medicine for her heart troubles - probably contributed to her longevity, she said. But it's all guesswork.

"There's a lot for us to learn yet," she said. "There's a lot for us to learn."



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Ketchikan, Alaska