Since antiquity, eternal youth has been the quintessential (albeit unfulfilled dream) of mankind. In the early 1900s, the average global life expectancy was just 31 years. With a life spanning just three decades, one can imagine how the powerful leaders throughout history must have longed for immortality, or at least for longevity. In ancient China, for example, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, who gained enormous power as the first to unify the country, sent envoys throughout the land to search for the elixir of immortality. He even sought to extend his life by imbibing a potion made from mercury and gold. In the West, alchemy thrived during the medieval period. A branch of learning with roots in ancient Greece, alchemy was studied widely with the goal of transforming iron or lead into gold and creating philosopher’s stones or elixirs of life.
Turning to today, the average global life expectancy in 2017 was 70.9 years. Our life expectancy has more than doubled in just 120 years. Our view of life is being transformed as we enter an unprecedented age of longevity in which 100-year life spans are commonplace.
An age of 100-year life spans
—what if life continued for 40 years after retirement at 60 years old?
In our society, mainstream thinking has defined post-retirement as a time to enjoy our twilight years. When the retirement system was introduced in the mid-1950s, retirement normally came at the age of 55. Since Japanese men only lived, on average, to their mid-60s, these twilight years lasted less than a decade. In the age of 100-year life spans soon to be upon us, post-retirement life will last 40 years. Naturally, this will change how we plan our lives.
The push toward an era of 100-year life spans is also driven by the rejuvenation of physical function among the elderly. Take walking speed, for example. According to research by the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, the walking speed of 75-year-olds in 2002 was about the same as 64-year-olds in 1992. In other words, compared to a decade earlier, people functioned physically as if they were 11 years younger. In addition to healthcare and diet, greater health consciousness has also contributed to this revitalized of the elderly.
At the same time, this greater health consciousness also contributes to longer healthy life expectancy. As healthy life expectancy increases, the gap between healthy life expectancy and average life expectancy shrinks. Since this gap is the period when nursing care and other assistance becomes necessary, any shortening is thought to lead to constrain social security and medical costs. According to the 2016 Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions, the gap between healthy life expectancy and average life expectancy is 12.35 years for women and 8.84 years for men in Japan. Further improvements, and efforts to achieve them, are expected.
Make the decline in function due to aging a gradual one! Will this substance change the role of the elderly?
Faced with a declining population and super-aged society, what we need to focus on now is not average life expectancy but healthy life expectancy. This is because a longer healthy life expectancy that maintains high mental and physical functioning will enable the elderly to stay active in society and live meaningful lives in their twilight years. NMN (nicotinamide mononucleotide) is a substance drawing attention from many researchers for its potential to extend healthy life expectancy by improving various symptoms that accompany aging and elevating overall bodily function.
“We cannot stop aging itself, but minimizing the decline in function that accompanies aging ought to help achieve the ideal of living a long, healthy life followed by a painless, timely passing.” So says Professor Shin’ichiro Imai of the Department of Developmental Biology and Department of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, a pioneer in NMN research. Using NMN effectively could transform the image of the aged, from that of socially vulnerable people who require nursing and other aid to people who lead the world with their knowledge and experience. The anti-aging effects of NMN could change the nature of our future society.
Next time, we’ll delve into the mechanism of aging by looking at Dr. Imai’s research and explore Teijin’s vision for quality-of-life (QOL) in the future.
Angus Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (Development Center of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED), 2001)
World Economic Forum (WEF)