We are living for longer, but will we be happier?

The science to increase our lifespans is already here, but ensuring people's extra years are happy and healthy is the real challenge

Elderly Iranian men sit in a Tehran park. If governments are to meet the financial and economic challenges of supporting a large, ageing population, they will have to begin planning now. EPA
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The idea of people living forever has long been a staple of literature, art and science fiction. Few explorations of this compelling topic have been as intriguing – and troubling – as that of Ad Vitam, a French TV series broadcast in 2018.

The murder mystery is set in the near future, where humanity has developed technology that stops the ageing process. The effects of this breakthrough are profound: people under 30 are considered minors; without the need to create a new generation, children are considered an unnecessary nuisance; and people hold on to their jobs in perpetuity, disenfranchising the country’s youth. As the current generation stops ageing and stays put, the natural cycle of human death and birth is broken, and stagnation permeates society.

Although such a scenario is not yet realistic, a report in The National this week explains how we are making considerable scientific leaps towards living longer and longer. Stem-cell therapies, improved disease diagnostics and management as well as a deeper understanding of lifestyle factors are helping more people live longer and healthier lives. When combined with other factors, such as falling birth rates, a demographic challenge arises that poses serious questions.

Helping people attain longer lifespans is one thing. Ensuring they do so with a decent quality of life – that is, strong physical and cognitive health as well as social, psychological and emotional support – is quite another. If governments are to meet the financial and economic challenges of supporting a large, ageing population, they will have to begin planning now because the living-longer trend is already upon us; the World Health Organisation predicts that the number of people living beyond 60 will double by 2050, and triple by 2100. In this region, if current trends continue, those aged over 50 in the GCC will comprise 18.5 per cent of the population by 2025, up from 14.2 per cent in 2020.

Given that some Middle East countries are investing in the science of longevity, it is perhaps not surprising that research into not only living longer, but living better, is coming from this part of the world. Across the UAE, for example, universities, hospitals and the private sector are examining the intricacies of ageing as never before. Since 2019, the Abu Dhabi Stem Cell Centre has been working on tissue regeneration and rejuvenation. Elsewhere in the capital, Masdar City is home to a biocomputing innovation research laboratory that focuses on age-related illnesses. In Sharjah, the emirate’s Research Technology and Innovation Park and Deep Knowledge Analytics joint venture maps the country’s longevity industry.

Technology could also have a major role in preserving the memories of people who could – as some scientists are currently suggesting – be capable of living to 150 years old by the end of this century. In February, a new project that tries to recreate dementia patients’ lost memories by using AI was demonstrated at the World Governments Summit in Dubai. The ethics of digitally preserving, altering or recreating human memories comes with many serious considerations – another challenge for regulators facing profound social change.

Although Ad Vitam dealt with longevity, ageing and mortality as a topic for a science-fiction drama, the reality is that we are rapidly approaching a point where people are living way past the average life spans of the past decades. If that moment comes, humanity should be ready.

Published: March 19, 2024, 3:00 AM