The Bulleit Group 27 Mar 2019 // 3:40AM GMT
People are living longer than ever before. Today, more than 900 million people are over the age of 60, and that number is projected to grow to 2.1 billion by 2050. In the U.S., life expectancy will reach the mid-80s by 2050 and by 2100, there will be an astounding 5.3 million centenarians (people over 100), according to a U.S. Census Bureau.
Of course, there are many factors that affect life expectancy, including genetics, access to health care, diet, exercise, and even neighborhood crime rates. Many of today's scientific advancements on aging are meant to treat the effects of aging on the body—think Botox and wrinkle creams, arthritis drugs, and heart valve replacement—but there are several emerging companies looking at ways to change the rate at which we age and improve the quality of our lives as we get older.
Longevity has long been a topic of interest not only for the scientific community but also for science fiction writers. Notions of cryogenics, brain transplants, blood infusions, and reanimation have captured our collective imagination ever since Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1823. But these stories often take the form of cautionary tales, linking longevity and nightmares.
A recent Pew Research Center poll found that most Americans believe that living to the age of 120 is bad for society. William Saletan posited in Slate that this is because people “picture spending much of that time feeling withered, afflicted, and debilitated.” However, despite any fears we may have, advancements in longevity are considered some of the greatest achievements of the modern era. In fact, the United Nations calls longevity research one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st century.
Laura Deming is a Longevity Fund partner who studies and funds companies improving longevity. According to her, the study of aging can be described as “trying to figure out what kinds of damage accumulate with age, how to reverse that accumulation, and the search for switches that we could flip in human biology to increase lifespan.”
Deming's New Year’s resolution for 2019 is to make a mouse live forever. That may sound impossible, but we’ve already made many strides in extending the lives of animals, specifically mice, with therapies such as restricting calories, removing reproductive organs, and mutating mitochondria (you can find a list of 95 of these advancements on the Longevity Fund website).
But mice aren’t the only animals that have access to the fountain of youth. One of Deming’s investments, Fauna Bio, is researching hibernating animals to see if what they learn can be applied to humans. Animals in hibernation can manipulate their metabolism and blood flow and even prevent tissue damage, which could help people who experience catastrophic events, such as a heart attack or a stroke. The company aims to create a hibernation-like state in patients through a combination of drugs and natural compounds like melatonin.
Unity Biotechnology is another company backed by Deming, as well as by tech titans Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos—and for a very good reason. The company is developing medicines that can potentially halt, slow, or reverse age-associated diseases while restoring human health.
Unity’s research is centered on senescent cells—older cells that have stopped dividing and are one of the causes of age-related diseases. In a government-approved trial, Unity hopes to treat and reverse the effects of osteoarthritis by injecting a drug into a person’s knee to destroy senescent cells. If successful, it’s possible that, in the future, the same drug could be used to treat pain anywhere in the body.
While many startups and biotech companies are some of the first to take a serious look at longevity, large consumer companies are not far behind. Procter & Gamble, for example, has long been planning for the coming “silver tsunami” of aging Boomers with products you can find on the shelf at Target. They are also actively looking at ways to enable aging consumers to live comfortably and safely at home for longer through P&G Ventures, the startup studio within Procter & Gamble. The group’s mission is to “work in partnership with entrepreneurs to create new brands, technologies, and business models.” One of its primary areas of focus is finding convenient and accessible solutions to age-related difficulties, such as bathing, continence care, and fall prevention for both caregivers and the aging.
More people are living longer lives and, thanks to longevity research, we’re more prepared now than we’ve ever been to make those extra years comfortable and productive. People are capable of amazing things—there are 85-year-old marathoners and 100-year-old yoga teachers—and it’s crucial that we as PR practitioners pay attention to the latest research and developments in all areas of the aging industry, from biotech to consumer packaged goods, because we’ll undoubtedly be shaping this innovation story for many years to come.