I found some UK statistics from the UK government’s Office for National Statistics recently – they were prepared for the Department of Work and Pensions to determine how much the government needs to put by in pensions. (If you want to skip the statistics and just want to know when you might live forever, feel free to jump to the last paragraph now!) These statistics are particularly interesting as they look at life expectancy when a person is already aged 65 – so they avoid the big impacts on life expectancy “at birth” statistics from the 20th century including better child birth care, antibiotics and the world wars.
Up until the last few years not only has there been a steady increase in life expectancy at 65, but also a steady increase in the rate it is increasing. To make it easier to see, I’ve not plotted the life expectancy but the year-on-year increase in life expectancy when aged 65. That’s the red line on the graph, smoothed out with a 10 year trailing average (of average male & female life expectancy).
Using a standard linear trend line (in black) you can see a steady increase. Now what happens when the black line reaches 1.0? At that point people about to retire will start having their life expectancy increase by one year for every year they live*. So when will that be? Continuing the trend line shows indefinite life extension being reached in 2136.
But what about all the talk about exponential growth in medical technology? Oh yes! Don’t think I’d forgotten about that. Look at the green curve – this is a best fit exponential curve for the same data. Even with the recent trail off it still shows exponential growth. So when does this line reach 1.0? Much sooner – using the formula for the trend line Excel chucked back at me, this curve hits jackpot in 2036, a whole century sooner. So if you’re currently under 44 (in 2015) you’ll reach 65 just as life expectancy is increasing as fast as you’re living – welcome to immortality!
*OK in a year’s time you’re now 66 so not quite at the same point on the graph, but a couple of years later life expectancy will be increasing faster that time passes so this seems as good a point as any to say on average people will be living forever.
Data source: Cohort Estimates of Life Expectancy at Age 65
We live in a high tech society, yes? Moore’s Law has seen computer power grow so fast that most of us carry more computing power around on our phone than was used to send people to the moon only a few decades ago. So why is it that the basic measurements for health are still a thermometer under the tongue and blood pressure based on a cuff round your arm at a specific time?
There are so many areas that rapidly improving technology can help in healthcare from drug discovery to laboratory automation, however here I’m going to focus on diagnostics.
There are already a few recently launched swallowable capsules that take images of a patients digestive tract as they pass through, reaching places its generally not possible to examine from the top or bottom (so to speak!) – these are known as capsule endoscopies and are typically quite a mouthful with dimensions of 1 to 2 centimetres. Give or take this is about the size of commercially available transistors in the 1950s compared to the 2014 fabrication technology of 14nm – that’s a million fold improvement in 60 years or a halving of size every 3 years (sorry Mr Moore, not your usual 18 months but this is back of an envelope maths so close enough).
So what happens when medical technology meets Moore’s Law? To allow sensors to monitor the bloodstream from within they’ll need to be about the size of a typical red blood cell, say 6 µm, so a two thousand fold improvement – easy, we should have that 33 years. Which means in the 2040s we could all have swarms of sensors monitoring every part of our bodies – checking blood pressure constantly at thousands of points in our circulatory system providing early warning of any constrictions that would indicate damage or plaque build up. And many years before that you’ll be able to take a daily capsule – not another vitamin but a daily cheap diagnostic for any digestive tract problems. No doctors will need to be involved unless something unusual is detected – maybe results sent to your smartphone, but already that sounds a bit dated – more likely sent to your personal health centre which all homes will have that monitors your every move, breath and perspiration to check you’re in the best possible condition.
Two research announcements caught my eye today which show that healthcare has turned into a technology and is therefore improving exponentially.
Firstly the Institute of Microelectronics Barcelona have attached barcode chips to immature egg cells. Initially to be used for assisted reproduction when eggs need to be tracked and monitored, this could easily be modified to tag any cells which could then help with diagnosis – for example (and I’m totally guessing here) a batch of chipped cells could be injected or swallowed and then the whole body scanned to monitor where they end up – highlighted if organs are working as expected.
Then (on the other side of the chip sandwich) theres the human on a microfluidic chip. The Fraunhofer Institute for Material and Beam Technology have created a 1:100,000 scale human being (the organs anyway) which allows drugs to be checked for toxicity and efficacy in a much more realistic environment than today’s simple tissue samples. A device like this potentially allows every organ in the body to be tested early in the drug development process, minimising the risk of problems that only occur when the drug interacts with a living human body.
And in case you’re thinking that’s still a lot of work to do all that testing – check out this video on the BBC News website showing not only automated testing, but a robot that always makes its own decisions about what to test to make it even more efficient: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-31124843