With seven-plus billion people on planet earth at the end of August 2013, and a further two billion expected to arrive by 2050, we as individuals are increasingly defined by our number. For most people of working age in advanced countries, this number is normally your social security number issued by the government of your native country.
This single unique number defines who we are in terms of so many aspects of our lives and will remain attached to us for millennia to come. There will be multiple people with your unique name, but only you will ever have your unique name and social security number.
With modern big databases, we can be indexed, defined, described, located and even have our futures predicted by linking this single number to other data known about us; our family, race, ethnicity and our generation. Interesting, cool, scary, deadly… indeed all of these!
What’s your age?
Forty is the new thirty. Eighty is the new sixty. So, on the basis of this proportionality, 100 is the new 75. The average life expectancy of people born in 1938, 75 years ago, is nearly 75 today.
What’s your life expectancy?
Look around a graveyard at the age of our forebears’ headstones and you will be surprised by some trends. Women have tended to live longer than men, on average in the West, by between eight to ten years depending upon which country in the past two centuries. Yet women are biologically predisposed to die earlier than men.
Why is this? One reason is childbirth. A second is selfsacrifice for their children.
Taken from the viewpoint of a Western European nation, Japan, Russia and China, this anomaly is because of the impact of the two World Wars and internal repression, particularly in Lenin’s Russia and Mao’s China. In the case of the two World Wars, two generations of young men went off to war and never returned. The impact of the First World War is no longer visible in a country’s population age profile, but the impact of the Second World War, 1939-45, certainly is; with the average 17-year-old at the end of that war now 85.
So the society, its politics and religion, plus the environment we live in all play a part in the equation which determines our individual life expectancy today.
Precision in numbers: Measurement of time, length and weight
We have traditionally measured our lives in terms of years, which are made up of seasons, months, days, hours and seconds. All analogue measures. Today, by contrast, we measure time and distance, not in analogue nor in physical units we can see, but in terms of quantum physics, more specifically the wavelength of light.
This change from analogue to digital allowed us to put a man on the moon and bring him back again in 1969. That would not have been possible a decade before. This change from analogue to a digital world only arrived for the rest of us as recently as 1984, when the relevant measuring body adopted the wavelength of light to redefine the length of a standard metre and so, our whole metric system of length. This has allowed us to determine the distance between two objects in space with the required accuracy to be able to send someone there and back again safely. Remarkably, the computers used to guide the Saturn Five rocket propelling the first lunar space capsule with astronauts and moon-walkers Shepherd and Buzz Aldrin onboard were nowhere near as powerful as your mobile phone is today.
The adoption of light also improved the accuracy of time, which, up to the arrival of passenger trains in England in the 1840s, was based upon the sun—so time varied from east to west by as much as 15 minutes across a small country as wide as England. The need for a standard measure of time fixed for all points on the surface of the globe was first required by ships which used tide tables to enter ports around the world. This standard for earth time is measured relative to one fixed point on the earth’s surface and is known as Greenwich Mean Time, adopted in 1884, 130 years ago, and still used to determine world time today.
When your number’s up
The human genome project has enabled the sequencing of all 23 of our double-helix human genes. Relationships between them in terms of what determines certain genetic features such as eye colour or blood type are now well known. Ten years ago, you could pay $100,000 to have your own personal genome “typed,” which would allow the genetic basis of your life expectancy to be predicted fairly accurately (to ± two standard errors giving a 95% probability).
Today, the cost is less than $1,000, such has been the progress in gene typing, the linking of big databases and use of probability assessment. Putting everything that is known about you, your parents, your generation, your location on planet earth, your weight at age five, and a few other key metrics, allows these databases to spew out a whole range of metrics including estimating your life expectancy given your age at the time. Of central importance to me today, as a 1950s child with a young daughter, is my life expectancy and my risk of certain diseases—particularly the three major silent killers of heart disease, type two diabetes and fatty liver disease.
The largest ever one-day detailed study of the health of the adult UK population took place in Manchester, England, earlier this summer and showed that 73% of this group of 380 people with an average age of 42 had one or another of these three silent killers which, if they are controlled, such as by obese people losing sufficient weight to get back to be within their normal weight range, could expect to add over 4,000 years to their combined life expectancy, adding an average of more than ten years for each person in this group.
Making the required lifestyle change, though, is the real challenge. For a morbidly obese person (BMI of over 40), there is a mere 1% chance of them successfully dieting to reach and maintain normal weight for their height and age for a period of five years or more.
The challenge now is for the food companies to get on board to help keep us all alive longer. While public policy in each country will dictate the scale of the effort expended on this initiative within any one country’s borders, there is a need for this effort to become a new global initiative – to be adopted not just by multiple single governments, but also by the major food giants all of which are multinationals spanning most of the world’s countries and delivering food to most of the world’s better-off people. Nestle, Proctor and Gamble and other global food manufacturers and retailers are found today in almost all countries of the world. But it will likely be some time before the world cottons on to the need for this initiative and gets the 20 or so top food and beverage companies worldwide to tow the “a long life is the best strategy for the human population” line. It is clearly in these global companies’ best interests too to keep alive more of their customers for longer.
In the meantime, you are best to find out when your own number is likely to be up by doing a thorough health and lifestyle check-up and live your life according to “long life strategy” rules. For I know very few people, even when sick with cancer with a limited life expectancy, to vote to die before their allotted time. However, most Westerners born today will not achieve their biological potential of reaching 100 through ignorance or desire to gorge on food and drink that they like. Sad, but oh so true!