The year is 2020 and ihe average lifespan is 100 years. The maximum life expec tancy is even higher-perhaps 150 years.
Science fiction? Wishful thinking? Reality, say iwo experts from the University of Southern California's Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.
Within the next 40years, increasingly longer lifespans will become the rule, report Dr. Ruth Weg, associate professor of biology and gerontology, and Frank Beaudet, instructor in gerontologyToday,
the average lifespan is 73.2 years, with significant numbers living into their 80s and 90s. Three or four decades from now, a citizen may not be considered a "senior" unitl his 80th birthday or later. The longer lifespans, the gerontologists say, will be due to a number of factors.
Cures, delays and prevention of killer diseases will become more common. "Within the next 30 or 40 years," predicts Beaudet, "we will see a number of breakthroughs in major disease processes like cancer and heart disease. If we eliminate the diseases of the cardiovascular system and immune system and deal effectively with cancer, many of the problems resulting in the debilitation of the human system will no longer be present."
"If we can be successful ineliminating or reducing the killer diseases." notes Weg, "that alone will increase the average lifespan by 1"> or 20 years, essentially reducing premature death."
New and perfected methods of improving body systems will also add to the lifespan. Already under way are studies on laboratory animals for ways to improve the immune system, to make the body more resistant to disease and more capable of fighting disease.
Knowledge about the aging process has increased dramatically, and the discoveries are expected to continue. "We now understand the aging processes of the brain and nervous system, for example, much more than we did 10 years ago," Beaudet reports.
A more thorough understanding of nutritional needs of the elderly is ei'olving. "We're finding that the digestive systems of the elderly change less than had previously been thought," says Beaudet, "but that changes in stress, metabolism and other areas make certain nutritional needs unique for older adults."
The role of the diet in prei'enting or treating disorders traditionally associated with aging is under study. In one study, elderly persons with senile dementia (a decrease in nervous system function marked by confusion and loss of memory) are being given supplements of choline. Scientists believe that choline-which converts to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter-helps relieve memory loss by itnprovng the message transmission between brain cells.
Increased individual participation in health maintenance will continue to play a major role in prolonging life, as well as improving the quality of life. Especially important. Weg believes, is attention to appropriate daily living habits-such as no smoking, moderate exercise, relaxation, interpersonal Relationships and intellectual challenge.
So confident are Weg and Beaudet that 100-year lifespans are only a few decades away that they now focus much of their professional concern on how society can best adapt to a larger population of older citizens.
Of primary importance. Weg says, is a changing perception of the elderly. "If we keep people alive longer," she says, "the assumption has been that we will need more nursing homes. That assumption is based on existing realities. with no consideration for impending changes. We tend to look at aging and at an increase of older persons as a problem, rather than a success story, it's actually a vic tory.
" The définition of "old' will change in a positive direction," she predicts. "We will shed our myths about aging and see people as they really are. The notion that wrinkles are bad will be discarded as people are regarded as 'whole persons.' "
Another attitude due for c hange. Weg says, is the conviction that it's belter to be young. The image of elderly peopleas "invalids, sexless and powerless" must fade. "Studies show," Weg points out, "that society's denial of the sexual needs of older persons has created more problems than actually existed in the first place."
Attitudes and images are not all that will change as lifespans increase, say Beaudet and Weg.
Employment patterns will be altered drastically. Neither gerontologist expects that early retirement-at age 70 or before-will continue as a norm. Not. they say, will the employee of the future remain at a single job for his entire career.
"My guess." says Beaudet. "is that there will be multiple careers throughout life, interspersed with multi-year sabbaticals."
"I imagine people will work mm h differently than they do now," agtees Weg. "Work will be laced throughout life. It's a good change. We are socialized from the beginning of our consciousness toward the work ethic. Work becomes essential to our well-being and then-at a fixed birthday, 65 or 70-is denied us. Enforced retirement, therefore, has often been highly negative."
As lifespans increase, another effect will be the increasing rarity of the traditional marriage relationship. "People will bond in some type of relationship," Weg predicts, "but I don't know if we will still seek a marriage license 100 years from now, except when children are involved."
However, she thinks the act of bonding-whatever its form-will be even more crucial than it is today. "As we look to the future, to a science-fiction, posttechnology world, in a sense the environment may become more dehumanized," she says. "Personal interactions will become more necessary and meaningful."
The ethical questions of life extension, note the USC geron to legists, are still largely unanswered. "Will life extension be available for everyone?" Beaudet asks. "Or will there be a selection process? What if one person wants life extension, but a partner does not?"
Some interesting political-ethical questions could arise. "How would a 110-year-old US president interact with statesmen from other countries who may not have access to the life-extension technique?" wonders Beaudet.
By far the most important ethical consideration, say Beaudet and Weg, is to ensure that a longer life is worth living.
"The number of years is not as important as the quality of life," Beaudet believes. "No one will want to live to be 100-or 150-unless the last years of life are comparable in quality to the first."
And Weg points out that even the most sophisticated life-extension technique leaves a great deal of responsibility to the individual:
"In all of the efforts of the human family-the search for long life, everlasting youth, even immortality-no panacea has emerged. The realization of the 'good life'-however long or short- ultimately rests With each of us."