Human health: what are the costs?

Sensemaking / Human health: what are the costs?

07 Jul 2011

Peter Madden, CEO at Forum, ponders what advances in medical science, cosmetic surgery, and healthier lifestyles may mean for sustainability in the future.

In a couple of decades’ time, some of us will be living much longer, but looking much younger.

On current trends, by 2035 nearly 100,000 people in the UK will live to be 100, with a good few even passing 110. Advances in medical science combined with healthier lifestyles should push back the onset of conditions like heart disease and diabetes, so that more people enjoy more years of active life.

On top of these steady improvements, many scientists are predicting much bigger leaps in longevity. The rapid advances expected in genomics and regenerative medicine could mean that people start to live very much longer. Indeed, there are serious scientists who believe there is someone alive today who will live to be 1,000. Ray Kurzweil, an American guru of ‘extreme longevity’, is popping a stomach-churning 200 pills a day with the aim of still being alive when the breakthroughs that allow such an extension of the human lifespan take place.

Not only will people invest in living longer, they’ll also spend (even more) time and money trying to look younger. Research labs will compete to find the interventions that really do take years off your looks. And if current trends continue, cosmetic plastic surgery will be routine. Indeed, in Britain, some people already pop out for plastic surgery in their lunch hour – and, as a nation, we spend more on it than we do on tea!

These trends are nothing new. Human history is peppered with quests for immortality and the elixir of youth. And, of course, long life and good looks will not be evenly distributed. Wealth differentials already affect life expectancy. But we can expect to see some people buying ‘life’ more explicitly – through medical interventions. This, combined with the impact of obesity and bad diet on the poorer sectors of society, could lead to a yawning gap in life expectancy.

So what will these trends mean for sustainability? Will we invest more in a healthy diet and an improved environment, in the hope that we can enjoy both for longer? Or will our money go on surgery and on pharmaceuticals that find their way into the ecosystem? How and where will the older population live? We could certainly expect to see more single person households, which are on balance less efficient.

And if we extend life expectancy without concurrent drops in the birth rate, total numbers will increase, testing still further the planet’s environmental limits. Unless we can find ways to live lighter, as well as longer, on the Earth, increasing our years may turn out to be a poisoned chalice.

Peter Madden is Chief Executive, Forum for the Future.

Image credit: azgek/istock

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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