That you will age and die is a given. The questions are when and whether it will be miserable or graceful. Short answer: expect to live to be 100. And if you are like most urban Indians in their late 30s and early 40s who maintain an awful lifestyle, expect to die miserable. That is, unless you mimic the 38-year-old Vikram Sheel Kumar—physician, researcher and entrepreneur—who shuttles between Boston and Delhi.
Until three years ago, he was willing to punt he'd live to be 120. For various reasons, he has since lowered the bar: "I am older and wiser now, and would be happy with 100 healthy years. To get there I take some pills, like a multivitamin, fish oil, vitamin D and glucosamine. I don't drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, and exercise daily. Nothing too exciting, but I don't really think excitement gets you a century in this game."
Then there are optimistic extremists in the life expectancy camp, like Aubrey de Gray. A British gerontologist, he vociferously argued that ageing is a disease, it can be cured, and that somebody living right now could live to be a 1,000.
Michael Rose, among the world's foremost evolutionary biologists researching ageing at the University of California, Irvine, thinks de Gray's argument is bunkum. "I don't think ageing is a disease by any reasonable definition of the term disease," he argues. "I don't think it is possible to simply cure it. But I do expect that this century will see biomedical research tame it to the point that it is no longer devastating. People born after 2050, I predict, will start to live two or more centuries. People born after 2000, I predict, will frequently live to 100 or more," he said in an email interview.
Be that as it may, all camps converge on the point that biological immortality is possible—a stage in a person's life when they stop ageing. This is not to say you won't die. But crudely put, this is the point when it is impossible to tell your age by physical appearances. For instance, in most cases, you cannot tell the difference between an 85-year-old and somebody who is 90.
By way of example, Kumar points to the 75-year-old Ramesh Chauhan, chairman of Bisleri International. "He is a really smart person. He controls his destiny to an extent, at least as far as work goes. So he is not retiring anytime soon. He just launched a new energy drink and is having the time of his life. He has kept his mind and body young by taking an interest in the little things in life. Sure, some would say that is micro-managing. But caring about the details means always being on. I don't believe we age by doing too much. It is when we stop to do, or turn off that we age," said Kumar.
But scientists like Rose are hard at work in trying to lower the age at which people hit biological immortality. "I think that dietary and activity changes, better tissue repair, and genomically-informed pharmaceutical development can be combined in our lifetimes to make the rate of increase in mortality and age-associated diseases less dramatic," he says.
"The kinds of experiments we have done with Drosophila (a small fruit fly used in genetic research) have been emulated on a smaller scale by scientists working with other insects and mice… There are already clinicians and biotech companies interested in using my ideas. However, they have not yet achieved enough impact to affect the lives of many people this decade. Maybe next decade will be better. We'll see."
To put it mildly, Rose is understating the significance of his work. As early as 2004, David Sinclair and Christoph Westphal co-founded Sirtris Pharmaceuticals. The company's stated mission was to develop drugs that harness the body's immune systems to fight ageing. Some breakthroughs with yeast (a microscopic fungus) later, the management at drug maker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) reckoned the breakthroughs could potentially be deployed to arrest the debilitating consequences of ageing. In what was seen as a contentious acquisition, GSK paid the founders $720 million way back in 2007. Pharmaceutical industry analysts thought this was too high a price to pay for a nascent, untested technology. But if anything, it highlighted the kind of money Big Pharma is willing to bet on backing anti-ageing research, or the elixir of youth if you will. Then last year, under equally contentious circumstances, GSK shut Sirtris down. The official line was, "integrating into the larger company will grant the programme better access to GSK's chemistry, biology and pharmacology teams".
Coming back to the point, when Chauhan's lifestyle is extrapolated with Rose's work, Kumar reckons, on average, urban Indians now in the 40s will live to 80. Statistically, this means that the probability that most people reading this newspaper will live to be 100 is high. And that is where the problems begin. Because living to be 100 is one thing. Living healthy until then is another thing altogether. As acclaimed author and physician Atul Gawande points out poignantly in his most recent book Being Mortal: "Old age is a continuous series of losses… Old age is not a battle. Old age is a massacre."
Add to this the mindset most of our policymakers and we are weaned on. That we ought to retire at 60, or 65 on the outside. Rose dismisses the idea outright. "I think universal mandatory retirement ages are now of little value," he says. He's got a point. Because if life expectancy goes up 40 years from the time you retire, how are you to fend for yourself for the rest of your life?
Much has been written as well about India's demographics and how it will be the youngest country in the world by 2020. What isn't spoken of is that 15 years from now, India will have at least 120 million senior citizens. This number doesn't include those in the late 30s and early 40s. Bunch them and estimates reckon there will be 330 million seniors (the entire population of the US in 2012) slugging with an impatient next-gen to earn a livelihood. But most people don't get it. "People cannot fathom their increasing lifespan in the same way as it is hard for a child to see how tall he is becoming," points out Kumar. The question then is what are we to do?
If anything, Chauhan is a pointer. You've got to keep reinventing yourself. Second and third careers will be par for course. That means you don't stop at investing for your child's future education; you also invest in reskilling yourself. It is entirely possible that the skills you possess now will be redundant when you're past a certain age. Because "…specific high-risk occupations that require high levels of stamina might require regulation with respect to measurable physiological competence", points out Rose.
That said, not all is morbid. Gawande writes, "If we shift as we age towards appreciating everyday pleasures and relationships rather than achieving, having, and getting, and if we find this more fulfilling, then why do we take so long to do it? Why do we wait until we're old? The common view was that these lessons are hard to learn. Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old age are achieved over time." In other words, with some discretion, it is possible to age gracefully. More importantly, as life expectancy increases, the life skills that Gawande alludes to and come with age can be enjoyed for much longer than people do now. That is a pretty damn good reason to live to be a centenarian.