BAR HARBOR — In 2000, researchers Steven Austad, now of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Chicago, each bet $150 over whether the first person who could live to age 150 was already born.
Austad bet the person was already born, while Olshansky bet that person was not. The payoff for the combined $300, which is in an investment account until 2150, is an estimated $500 million at historical market growth rates over the 150-year period, according to Austad. The downside: neither scientist will likely be alive to collect the money, which will go to one of their descendants or to a designated university.
The one caveat is that the 150-year-old person has to be cognitively intact and able to hold a competent conversation.
In a keynote speech Thursday evening before attendees at an aging conference at MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Austad said he doesn’t expect the average life expectancy for everyone to be 150 by that time, but that just one person needs to reach that age for him to win the bet.
“The average life expectancy in the United States is 79 now. It would need to be 103.4 in 2150 for that one person to reach 150,” he said, adding he expects those number are realistic.
Oldest person to date was 122
The 150 years is 21% longer than the oldest documented person on record, Jeanne Calment of Arles, France, who lived to be 122 years and 164 days. She died in 1997 of dehydration because she couldn’t remember to eat or drink, Austad said.
Austed expects that new drugs will come onto the market that can help extend life and keep quality to it, while at the same time decreasing the occurrence of today’s big killers including Alzheimer’s and cancer.
“Aging kills and debilitates far more people than any other cause because it underlies all of them,” he said. “There’s no reason to think we can’t go after all these diseases [at once].”
Austed studies animals with long life spans including bats and quahogs, which can live into their 40s and to age 500, respectively. He told Mainebiz in an interview that he is looking for chemical substances secreted by an ancient quahog, for example, to keep its muscles intact so it can open and close its shell to filter feed and live.
His favorite animal to study is the Brandt’s bat, which can fly 50-100 miles a day to get food and hunt by yelling so it can echo-locate its prey.
“Their high-frequency hearing is preserved for a long time,” Austed said.
Not everyone wants to be 150
When he polled the MDIBL audience about whether they would want to take a drug or have a drug publicly available to extend their life, only half said yes. That takes into account quality of life, social and economic factors as well as ethical issues about who gets access to the drug.
The first potential longevity drug will soon go into human clinical trials with the goal of getting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve it, Austed said. Called Metformin, it already is the most commonly used drug to treat Type II diabetes. It’s been given to millions of people for 60 years and is considered safe, he said.
“Understanding the biology of aging is one way out of diseases and pain,” he said. “There’s no reason to think we can’t go after all these diseases.”