Extending life expectancies to more than 150 years and radically reversing the ageing process – all possible in our lifetimes – will revolutionise the economy and markets, says Harvard geneticist David Sinclair.
After a sensationalLunch with the AFR interview with Jemima Whyte,The Maverick column decided to interrogate the Australian about the financial consequences of moving much closer to that nirvana of human immortality.
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In prior columns I've warned that we should expect non-linear jumps in longevity through medical innovations and in 2013 highlighted how our government has historically massively underestimated population growth.
According to mortality tables, a person born in 1977 (or aged 40 today) should live for about 73 years. Yet through improvements in healthcare, those born in 2015 have been given a 14 per cent longer lifespan at around 83 years.
"Right now it's like bitcoin before crypto-currencies became fashionable," he says. Louie Douvis
The issue is that these mortality tables are backward-looking and do not account for contemporary scientific research or indeed future innovations.
Based on his breakthroughs, Sinclair believes "the first person to live to 150 has already been born" and that we could see overall life expectancies jump "by 10 to 20 years".
"As a result of technology advances, we are getting several weeks of extra life every year that we live," says Sinclair, who is a professor at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biological Mechanisms of Aging. "We are about to experience a leap in this to many months and perhaps eventually a year."
Reverse ageing process
In a critical research finding unveiled in the prestigious Science journal in March last year, Sinclair's team discovered that they could accelerate DNA repair and literally reverse the biological ageing process, transforming a mouse aged 2.5 years to just a few months old. While our cells naturally repair DNA damage through, say, exposure to the sun's radiation, this capacity atrophies over time.
"Within five to 10 years there will be multiple medicines available to mitigate ageing."James Davies
"This is the closest we are to a safe and effective anti-ageing drug that's perhaps only three to five years away from being on the market if the trials go well," Sinclair commented in a release reviewing the research.
(Technically, the scientists found they could boost a metabolite, NAD+, which is present in every cell and crucially controls DNA repair, through a precursor called NMN.)
Sinclair complains that "nobody really regards ageing as a disease, but it is". "Just because dying is common, it does not make it acceptable and I very much hope the Australian government realises that this silly classification adversely affects every person."
Phase 1 human trials for his drug are almost complete and Sinclair reveals that he has been inundated with requests from people all around the world to capitalise on his life-elongating elixir.
Escalating healthcare costs, which are meant to force the government into producing perpetual budget deficits as the community ages, could be radically reduced. Peter Braig
Sinclair himself ingests the molecules and reckons his biological age has shrunk from 57 to 31 years. His 78-year-old father, a biochemist who was originally "sceptical" of the solution, is "physically in his 30s, going out every night, climbing mountains and starting a second career" after using it. Can I have a go?
The implications for the economy and markets are potentially profound. If we all live 20 years longer and significantly extend the productivity and duration of our working careers, populations, aggregate demand, and economic growth will explode beyond current forecasts.
Escalating healthcare costs, which are meant to force the government into producing perpetual budget deficits as the community ages, could be radically reduced.
The knock-on consequences for infrastructure spending and the way we manage urban development are immense.Ryan Stuart
If there are fewer people dying, there will also be less available housing supply, which could push property prices up much higher.
In its latest batch of population projections, the ABS assumes life expectancy improvements – which since 1982 have averaged about 0.27 years for every 12 months that passes – increase by on average 0.12 years or 0.25 years, between 2016 and 2061, in its "medium" and "high" cases. That is, it conservatively presumes longevity improvements decline from the historical experience.
My analysis suggests that lifting the annual life expectancy increment from 0.27 years since 1982 to, say, 0.5 years between 2016 and 2061 – which implies that by the end of this horizon we will be living 22.5 years longer than we were at the start – would mean an extra circa 6 million Australian residents.
We are already slated for huge population increases – around 42 million people by 2061 from 25 million presently – but this could be much closer to 50 million than we think.
The knock-on consequences for infrastructure spending and the way we manage urban development are immense. We currently have about fivemillion residents in greater Sydney.
Within 43 years, or most readers' lives, this will leap to 8.5 million people in the ABS's base case. If we then bake in a superior 0.5 year annual longevity increase, we are talking about 9.7 million dwellers, or almost double our current population. Congestion anyone?
Sinclair predicts that within five years anti-ageing medicines will become "one of the biggest early-stage industries in the world" and is personally involved in several commercialisation projects, including the NASDAQ listedCohBarInc, which has delivered 156 per cent share price growth over the last year
"Right now it's like bitcoin before crypto-currencies became fashionable," he says. "From a human-impact perspective, this could be as important as the development of vaccines and antibiotics, and the third main revolution in medicine".
Sinclair does not think there is widespread awareness of how mature the science is in this field. "We have more than 100 PhDs working on this commercially across dozens of companies and expect to have the first products to market within three to four years," he says. "Within five to 10 years there will be multiple medicines available to mitigate ageing."
There are, in fact, numerous firms moving towards other human trials with the ultimate aim of unleashing an industry that will allow us to "supercharge" our bodies through genetic reprogramming.
While Sinclair says immortality is a long way off, "there is no biological or physical law that says we cannot live for thousands of years". "It is feasible but it is like asking the Wright brothers whether we will one day land on the moon." I hope he's right!
The author is a portfolio manager with Coolabah Capital Investments, which invests in fixed-income securities including those discussed by this column.