What would happen if the average life expectancy in America was 150 years? Kara Miller asks David Ewing Duncan, author of “When I’m 164: The New Science of Radical Life Expectancy and What Happens If It Succeeds,” in an encore presentation of Innovation Hub.

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Guest:

Paul McCartney wrote “When I’m 64” when he was just 16 years old — and to him, that might have seemed unimaginably old. But now, just a few years later, that song got science writer David Ewing Duncan thinking. With advances in science and technology improving public health, could we live to 164?

Living Life Longer

One thing is for certain — people are living longer than ever before. In 1960, the average life expectancy for an American was 69.77 years. By 2010, it had jumped to 78.24 years. That’s a boost of nearly a decade.

Duncan chalks increased life expectancy up to widespread healthy living habits like an increased focus on nutrition and exercise. He also cites preventive medicine, from newly mandated vaccines to managing insulin levels in diabetic patients.

But Duncan thinks that we may see more innovative efforts to increase life expectancy in the years to come. Scientists may start to manipulate genes that can extend your life span. It’s an experiment that’s already been conducted with animals. On one lab visit, Duncan saw worms living to 10 times their life expectancy.

“There has been some work done in genetics that suggests that there might be what they call regulatory pathways that seem to adjust life span in some organisms,” he explains. “If you turn up or turn down the expression of these genes, they basically activate systems that, at least in some organisms, … have increased life span many times.”

Duncan is quick to point out that researchers aren’t seeking to increase lifespan. Instead, they are striving to cure diseases like cancer or HIV/AIDS. Nevertheless, helping the sick live longer has a side effect — increasing life expectancy.

We Can, But Should We?

We may soon be able to reach 164, but do people really want to live that long? No, says Duncan, who has been asking guests at lectures for the past three years. As it turns out, 60 percent of people want to live to be 80, America’s current life expectancy. Only 30 percent wanted to live to 120 years of age, and under 10 percent hoped to live to be 150. Fewer than 1 percent wanted to live forever.

“Some people worry about money — paying for it. Other people say, ‘Well, life is hard.’ Others say, ‘I can’t imagine not living 1,000 years because I have so many things I want to do in life,” Duncan says. “So it really is a wide range of answers.”

If our life span does begin to increase by decades, rather than years, at a time, Duncan thinks society will need to adapt quickly.

“If people are very healthy at 80 or 90 and they’re going to live to be 150, can society afford to have them retired? On the other hand," he asks, "can they afford to have them work? Will I be replacing my great-great-great grandson — taking his job?”

Right now, Duncan’s questions are just a thought experiment. But they could become real social problems. Because while today’s life expectancy of 80 years might seem a long way from 164, one thing is for certain — the trend of living longer than your parents and grandparents will continue.