Because transfer payments to the aged now make up the biggest part of the federal budget, I continually hear from people who fear anti-aging therapeutics will make things worse.
Extending lives by another few years, they say, will only increase the amount of time that people are receiving transfer payments.
This isn't true. In fact, the opposite will happen.
Social Security and Medicare as we now know them will disappear because they won't be needed. I've covered this before, so I apologize for repeating myself.
Right now, biotechnologies that will dramatically extend human healthspans are moving toward the market. Some are already known to those who monitor biogerontology, but others have carefully avoided publicity. When these breakthrough therapies finally arrive, the economy will undergo the most dramatic transformation since the Industrial Revolution.
To understand the future economic impact of longer lifespans, we need at least some grasp of the effects longer lifespans have already had.
The Biggest Change That Almost Nobody Noticed
The improvements in living standards and lifespans that came out of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment were accompanied by falling birthrates. By the middle to the late 20th century, most developed nations' populations were no longer replacing themselves.
The following chart from the invaluable Our World in Data website provides a few visual examples.
As you can see, birthrates in the countries with data reaching back to the 1800s fell by at least two-thirds. At the same time, life expectancies basically doubled.
In retrospect, this is the biggest change in human history… so far. Ironically, almost nobody seemed to notice.
There were exceptions, of course. In the 1930s, a few demographers figured out what was going on and wrote about it in academic journals and texts. However, their influence was washed away by the overpopulation hysteria of the 1970s.
If first-world governments had only acknowledged that growing older populations depended on a shrinking tax base of younger people, we could have prepared. Instead, most of them borrowed money to fund programs for the aged, creating catastrophic levels of debt.
Today, international debt levels are nearly comparable to those created by World War II, but with no post-war baby boom to pay them off. As a result, the world is facing a financial and humanitarian catastrophe that could dwarf the Great Depression.
Why did this happen?
Obviously, political and psychological factors contributed to the situation—but I think the main reason is that it happened so slowly.
Most people simply didn’t notice as birthrates and life expectancies changed. A few demographers crunching the numbers knew, but their voices were lost in the blizzard of everchanging political and media panics.
Since 1960, life expectancy in the United States has increased by about two months every year, but that wasn’t sufficient to penetrate public consciousness. We have not yet accepted that retirement models instituted when few workers lived to 70 are untenable today.
That will change, though. Discoveries made in just the last decade will enable much greater and much more rapid increases in lifespans.
I predict that within the next three to five years, we’ll see evidence that animal healthspans can be doubled at least. I’m also convinced several of the therapies that can do this will have a similar impact on humans.
If nothing changes on the legal front, it would mean that we are 10–15 years away from regulatory approval for human use of radical healthspan-extending therapies. However, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has implemented mechanisms for accelerating regenerative medicine that could reduce the delay to only a year or two. Other countries facing demographic catastrophes are also discussing major regulatory changes for anti-aging therapies.
Japanese approval wouldn’t allow use in the US, but health tourism would put these therapies within reach of wealthier Americans. In the case of radical regenerative medicine, that would be enough to force a real healthcare revolution.
The reason is that emerging regenerative therapies don’t just delay aging and death. I’ve recently written a lot about rapamycin, even though much more effective therapies are in the works. Rapamycin plays a critical role in this story because its use in animals shows that regenerative medicine leads to obvious rejuvenation. Aged mice treated with rapamycin regain hair, mobility, muscle mass, acuity, sexual vigor, and more.
At that point, Millennials and other young people will truly understand just how unfair the current system is. Older people will also accept the responsibilities that come with much longer healthspans.
More importantly, the cost of healthcare will plummet because healthspans will be significantly extended. The diseases that enfeeble and kill will be delayed or prevented entirely. Social Security and Medicare, at least in their current forms, will be obsolete.
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Editor, Transformational Technology Alert
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