Local BBC Sites

Page last updated at 12:04 GMT, Thursday, 6 January 2011
Living to 100? What about reaching 1,000 years of age?
Aubrey de Grey
Aubrey de Grey: "The first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already"

Nearly one in five people living in the UK will survive to see their 100th birthday, according to the government.

But a Cambridgeshire academic who specialises in the ageing process says that effective medical care could make it possible to live much longer.

Dr Aubrey de Grey said: "I think the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already."

If he is correct, this could have a profound impact on future healthcare and pensions provision.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said its figures suggested 10 million people - 17% of the population - would become centenarians and the government has already voiced concerns about how the country will cope with the needs of an increasing elderly population.

'Obesity epidemic'

Dr de Grey is the chief scientific officer of the SENS Foundation (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) which carries out research into the prevention and cure of ageing.

He agreed that the DWP's figures were a reasonable projection but added that this was not a new idea.

"Longevity has been increasing by a couple of years each decade for more than 50 years now, due to the success we have had in keeping people from getting the diseases of old age, and in keeping them in better condition throughout their whole lives."

He pointed out, however, that unless the "obesity epidemic" was brought under control, the government's projections might not be realistic.

"Obesity and related conditions have an enormous effect on the health of the elderly," he said.

Dr de Grey's work with the SENS project focuses on preventing ill-health and prolonging human life.

Elderly woman with walking stick
SENS research could prevent the diseases of old age

"This is really difficult work and we are at an early stage in developing the kind of medicine that will really stop us from getting sick when we get old.

"When we talk about longevity, it always has to be put into the context of health, because the only way we're going to get a lot of people living to 100, let alone older than that, is by keeping them healthy," he said.

'Youthful state'

In 2004 Dr de Grey told the BBC that humans could live to be 1,000 years of age or even older.

He still stands by that claim.

"We will not be simply keeping people alive in a frail, sick state.

"We will be actually keeping them in a youthful state so that they have a low probability of dying each year."

But how exactly is the scientific fraternity going to achieve this?

According to Dr de Grey, the genesis of this could be realised within decades.

"The medicines that I think are going to come along in the next 20 or 30 years are ones that not only slow down the ageing process and keep us from getting quite so sick, quite so young, but also reverse the ageing process," he said.

"In other words, conduct periodic repair and maintenance at the molecular and cellular level, so that even if we have already accumulated some of the damaging effects of ageing we can be periodically fixed up - like any simple man-made machine.

"Once we get medicine like that, we should be in a very powerful position to keep people in a genuinely youthful state - not just looking young, but feeling young and functioning young - for as long as we like."

New challenge

Currently 11,800 people in the UK are aged 100 or over and fewer than 100 are over 110.

Commenting on the DWP's population projections, Pensions Minister Steve Webb said the "staggering" figures brought home the need for pension reforms.

"Many millions of us will be spending around a third of our lives or more in retirement in the future," he said, adding that the government was determined to reform the pensions system to make it "sustainable for the long term".

If Dr de Grey's predictions are realised to their full extent, and we are to live longer, healthier and more youthful lives, perhaps the government will no longer have to worry about dealing with the health and welfare of the elderly.

However, housing us all might become the new challenge.


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific