A recent report published in the Lancet by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington has shown that global life expectancy continues to rise thanks largely to advances in healthcare.
The report found that global life expectancy increased by around six years from 1990 to 2013 and predicts that “if the pattern of the past two decade continues, a girl born in 2030 will live to be 85.3 years old on average, while a boy born then will live to be 78.1 years on average.”
The extension in life expectancy was driven by a decrease in deaths from several major diseases according to the Wall Street Journal.
News like this is always comforting and makes one look to the future with a greater sense of optimism. The human race is very lucky to be members of a species that continues to learn, advance and live better for longer, and long may this continue.
For anyone who follows the digital health ecosystem however may find the report’s 2030 life expectancy predictions a little disheartening to say the least. On an almost daily basis new announcements are made in the area of health and life sciences, particularly in the fields of technology and genetics, that paint a radically different picture than a linear growth graph anticipated by the report.
Digital health will bring an abundance of life
The Digital Revolution has disrupted numerous industries in its wake and because of this we have an abundance of information, media, purchasing options, connections and, yes, cat pictures, so why should health be no different? The Digital Health Revolution that is just beginning to emerge will spell an abundance of life too. Quite simply, this perfect storm of innovation will allow humans to live healthier, stronger and smarter lives, for longer.
These four innovations will be the key reason why life expectancy will grow more exponential than anticipated and why it’s likely you’ll live beyond 100 years of age.
1. Personal Genomics
Genomic breakthroughs are well underway and increasingly researchers are beginning to identify how genes work together to form disease and character traits. We’re beginning to understand what makes us unique as individuals. Behavioral genes that identify why some people need less sleep; how likely we are to respond to exercise; how good we are at learning and memorizing; how intelligent we are, and how confident we are as individuals.
Game-changing discoveries are being made in personal genomics making health a very personalized experience for the individual. The growing field of pharmacogenomics looks at how individuals react to drugs based on their genes; nutrigenetics identifies the genes an individual has which can bring about diseases through their nutrient intake; genome editing, which is still in its early phase, is where DNA is inserted, replaced or removed from the genome meaning that in the future your DNA will not only be read but edited too, and finally epigenetics which looks at how our lifestyle can not only affect our genetic make-up but can be passed on to our children and grandchildren. Yes, some of your genetic make-up is a result of your ancestor’s lifestyle choices of the past.
Game-changing discoveries are being made in personal genomics making health a very personalized experience for the individual.
Tech companies are in on the act too. Google will keep a copy of your genome in the cloud for $25 a year and Sony has recently partnered with M3 and Illumina to focus on genetic research. Craig Venter, the first person to sequence a human genome, has started a Silicon Valley based company called Human Longevity Inc. which aims to sequence one million human genomes by 2020, and offers each user a dashboard to help them understand their genetic data.
The future is bright. As the area develops, prices drop and more research is carried out, people will have their genome mapped out on a regular basis to identify the onset of diseases before they’re fatal.
2. Brain fitness
The human brain is one of the last great frontiers but thanks to technology we’ve learned more about it in the last 5 years than in the last 5,000 years. Technology is beginning to unlock the secrets of the brain and allowing us to identify how to maintain it and in some cases boost brain power.
Research into the human brain has received considerable investment recently with the BRAIN Initiative in the U.S. and the Human Brain Project in Europe. Currently mental disorders account for a significant portion of deaths at nearly every age, but this will change. Never has so much been done to explore the possibilities of maintaining and enhancing the human brain.
Mental disorders account for a significant portion of deaths at nearly every age, but this will change.
Until recently it was considered that the human brain is fixed and unable to change in adults, but recent discoveries in neuroscience have discovered that the brain, regardless of age, has the ability to create new brain cells and thus does not decline due to age. This neuroplasticity proves that age doesn’t have to be a negative factor to maintain a healthy brain and the practice of ‘neuroeducation‘ will continue to rise as we look to take care of our brains as much as the health-conscious do with their bodies.
Likewise advances in neurological technology is allowing us to train our brains using sensors and unusual methods. Transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS as it’s commonly known, is a technique done by delivering a low current electricity is delivered to the brain using electrodes. Studies show that tDCS improves mental performance including memory, focus and pattern recognition.
Moving beyond tDCS to the more advanced area of brain implants
DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, who have been covered on Bionicly before, is investing in innovative neuroscience technology such as inserting tiny brain implants into soldiers who are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
Some publications are even predicting superhuman-like abilities with brain chips when they do eventually make their way in to everyday life. That still could be some time away yet however. Supercomputers burn by the order of 1m watts to stimulate 1 million neurons. Your brain has 100bn neurons and only uses 20 watts to stimulate meaning you’re still far superior than any of the world’s supercomputers but technology is catching up. IBM has developed a new chip that functions like the brain and Stanford University researchers have developed a chip that uses 9,000 times less power than a standard PC chip.
3. Human Augmentation
Human augmentation is not a new concept. If you wear glasses, ride a bicycle or wear a pacemaker you are using third-party means to overcome the limitations of your body. Watch Steve Jobs’ anecdote on how computers are like ‘bicycles for our minds’ to get an understanding of the premise of human augmentation.
Human augmentation technologies can not only be used for treating people with disabilities but for enhancing and optmizing able-bodied human abilities. As an example, powered exoskeletons for disabled people are becoming more common place as the technology develops. Companies such as Ekso Bionics and ReWalk have developed robotic exoskeletons allowing the paralyzed to walk, while Biomechatronics develops not only mechanical prosthetics for amputees but is also developing exoskeleton “technologies that augment [able-bodied] human performance beyond what nature intends.”
“We’re beginning the age in which machines attached to our bodies will make us stronger, faster and more efficient.”
Group director of Biomechatronics, Hugh Herr, said in a recent TED talk , “…when a normal, healthy person wears the device [an exoskeleton] for 40 minutes and then takes it off, their own biological legs feel ridiculously heavy and awkward. We’re beginning the age in which machines attached to our bodies will make us stronger, faster and more efficient.”
It’s no surprise to learn that exoskeletons for the able bodied are being developed by the military. Various divisons of the U.S. armed forces, including DARPA, are all working on technology-assisted suits for protection and to develop superhuman-like capabilities.
DARPA’s funding Harvard’s Wyss Institute to develop a ‘soft exoskeleton’ for a range of people including the military, first-responders, elderly and those performing athletic activities. The soft exoskeleton can help wearers carry heavy objects for long periods of time with less energy consumption.
The U.S. Army with the help of universities and the technology industry is developing the TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit) which is a protective robotic exoskeleton suit worn by soldiers out in the field. Delivery time for the first-generation TALOS range from 2018 to 2026.
It’s not only predominantly the military that’s developing exoskeleton suits however. Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, one of the largest shipbuilders in the world is experimenting with a prototype exoskeleton suit that will allow its workers to lift heavy objects way beyond human capabilities. Biomechatronics have also developed a leg exoskeleton capable of carrying an 80-pound load without the use of motors.
Human augmentation isn’t just about robotic exoskeletons however and bionics are a key component also as new developments in the field are making their way in to consumer life. The Argus II by Second Sight is a surgical implant that allows blind people to see light and dark shades, and objects. Similarly cochlear implants are allowing deaf people to hear again. New innovations in prosthetic limbs allow the user to control them by thought through sensors connected to the brain.
4. 3D Bioprinting
We already know that 3D printing is going to change the traditional manufacturing model. 3D bioprinting, which uses the same process, but instead of printing plastic, metal and ceramic type products, can print human body parts, vaccinations and living cells will revolutionize how we maintain a healthy body. For example 3D bioprinting will produce tissues such as blood vessels and organs such as the lungs, kidneys and heart muscles.
Bioprinted organs and tissues could be made from a patient’s own cells which would eradicate the risk of rejection like you would have if receiving from a third-party donor. While still an innovation that is more a sign of things to come as opposed to something that is with us now, 3D bioprinting will be revolutionary and will no doubt extend people’s lives in a way that currently is just not possible.
Imagining the future from a different mindset
The full effect of technological innovations are never fully realized in their early development. At the beginning of the internet little did people know the profound effect that it would have on society; prior to the launch of the first Apple iPhone the potential of mobile computing was never really understood and who would have thought a company that wanted to make it easier for people to find things on the web would grow to be one of the largest in the world?
Of course it’s easy to connect the dots in hindsight but to have the foresight to imagine the future requires a different mindset that dismisses current thinking. Given these emerging health innovations mentioned above it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to envisage that the average life expectancy to be 100 years old and above.