Immortality and everlasting youth are the stuff of myths, according to new research which may finally end the eternal debate about whether we can live for ever.
Backed by governments, business, academics and investors in an industry worth $110bn (£82.5bn) – and estimated to be worth $610bn by 2025 – scientists have spent decades attempting to harness the power of genomics and artificial intelligence to find a way to prevent or even reverse ageing.
But an unprecedented study has now confirmed that we probably cannot slow the rate at which we get older because of biological constraints.
The study, by an international collaboration of scientists from 14 countries and including experts from the University of Oxford, set out to test the “invariant rate of ageing” hypothesis, which says that a species has a relatively fixed rate of ageing from adulthood.
“Our findings support the theory that, rather than slowing down death, more people are living much longer due to a reduction in mortality at younger ages,” said José Manuel Aburto from Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, who analysed age-specific birth and death data spanning centuries and continents.
“We compared birth and death data from humans and non-human primates and found this general pattern of mortality was the same in all of them,” said Aburto. “This suggests that biological, rather than environmental factors, ultimately control longevity.
“The statistics confirmed, individuals live longer as health and living conditions improve which leads to increasing longevity across an entire population. Nevertheless, a steep rise in death rates, as years advance into old age, is clear to see in all species.”
The debate over how much longer we can live has divided the academic community for decades, with the search for extended life and health particularly active in the UK, where at least 260 companies, 250 investors, 10 non-profits, and 10 research labs are using the most advanced technologies.
The UK government has even prioritised the separate sectors of AI and longevity by including both of them in the four industrial strategy grand challenges, which aim to put Britain at the forefront of the industries of the future.
But what has been missing from the debate is research comparing lifespans of multiple animal populations with humans, to work out what is driving mortality.
This study plugs that gap, said Aburto. “This extraordinarily diverse collection of data enabled us to compare mortality differences both within and between species.”
David Gems, a professor of biogerontology at UCL’s Institute of Healthy Ageing, said that the summary of the report suggested the research was “a very high-powered study proving something contentious and surely right”.
All the datasets examined by Aburto’s teams revealed the same general pattern of mortality: a high risk of death in infancy which rapidly declines in the immature and teenage years, remains low until early adulthood, and then continually rises in advancing age.
“Our findings confirm that, in historical populations, life expectancy was low because many people died young,” said Aburto. “But as medical, social, and environmental improvements continued, life expectancy increased.
“More and more people get to live much longer now. However, the trajectory towards death in old age has not changed,” he added. “This study suggests evolutionary biology trumps everything and, so far, medical advances have been unable to beat these biological constraints.”