The socioeconomics of human longevity

Paul Raven @ 05-10-2009

generationsAlmost as if they timed it to coincide with the just-finished Singularity Summit, a group of medical researchers published a paper last week in the prestigious journal The Lancet which shows that life expectancy in Western nations is increasing steadily, alongside quality of life in those later years. The trend shows no signs of levelling off any time soon, leading other ageing experts to hypothesise that there may be no intrinsic cap on the human lifespan. [via NextBigFuture; image by technowannabe]

The Guardian picked up the same press release and ran with it, providing us with the increasingly common spectacle of regular journalists and scientists engaging in science fictional speculation:

Life expectancy is increasing so fast that half the babies born in 2007 will live to be at least 103, while half the Japanese babies born in the same year will reach the age of 107.

The bad news is that the ageing populations of rich countries such as the UK threaten to unbalance the population. It “poses severe challenges for the traditional social welfare state,” write Christensen and colleagues.

But they have a radical solution: young and old should work fewer hours a week. Over a lifetime, we would all spend the same total amount of time at work as we do now, but spread out over the years.

“The 20th century was a century of redistribution of income. The 21st century could be a century of redistribution of work,” they write. “Redistribution would spread work more evenly across populations and over the ages of life. Individuals could combine work, education, leisure and child rearing in varying amounts at different ages.”

It is a theory that is beginning to receive “some preliminary attention”, the authors say, citing a study in the Science journal three years ago which suggested that shorter working weeks would help young people and increase western Europe’s flagging birth rate.

Shorter working weeks might further increase health and life expectancy, Christensen and colleagues write. But redistribution of work will not solve all the problems caused by a society with a large number of very old people. Beyond a certain point, the old will need younger people to look after them – although technology is likely to provide some help in advanced countries such as the UK.

The four-day week idea has been growing in strength ever since the markets nosedived about a year ago, and experiments indicate that it has lots of beneficial effects for both workers and their employers.

But once again we’re back to the issue of greying populations and sustainable reproductive rates, which looks like its going to be the meme of the season… thanks in no small part to the US healthcare debate, which – if you ignore the hot-air rhetoric and obfuscation on all sides – is largely about finding a fair way for the increasing number of elderly citizens to be supported by a diminishing number of younger workers. We’ve got no cause to feel smug on this side of the pond, either; free healthcare may be commonplace in Europe already, but it’s going to be just as stretched by demographic shifts as it will be in the States.

A spoonful of friendly bacteria helps the medicine go down

Tom James @ 21-08-2009

pillsGenetically engineered bacteria have been used to deliver therapies for bowel disorders like inflammatory bowel disease:

The bacterium is able to deliver the protein, a human growth factor called KGF-2, directly to the damaged cells that line the gut, unlike other treatments which can cause unwanted side effects. Also unlike other treatments, it is envisaged that patients will be able to control the medication themselves by ingesting xylan, perhaps in the form of a drink.

I am not 1 of the 400 Britons who suffers from IBD but it is wonderful to see that genetic engineering has such excellent medical applications.

[from Science Daily][image from Deco Fernandez on flickr]

Ambulances of the future

Tom James @ 07-04-2009

sc_shellSome elegant concept design for ambulances of the future, produced by the Royal College of Art and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council here at the BBC:

The idea of emergency on-the-spot community treatment was introduced by the government in 2001. However, experts say research into new technologies needed to support this new role is still lagging.

Mr Thompson continues: “We are looking at enabling technologies to help ECPs do their job.”

One such design is called the shell concept. It has a removable ‘shell’ that can slide off the main vehicle to create an expanded treatment space, or left on the scene for extended periods of time.

Other proposals include a soft continuous silicone interior which morphs to the shape of the patient and allows for infection control as well as a deployable tent allowing 360 degree access to patients.

[image by Rui Gio from the Royal College of Art]

Resilience economics – Jamais Cascio’s 2020 vision

Paul Raven @ 01-04-2009

skyscraper construction siteJamais Cascio has been doing what futurists do best – speculating on the near-term changes that need to be made to haul our asses out of the economic hole they’re in and, hopefully, ensure we don’t end up stuck there again.

Of course, the web is full of people doing the same thing, making pretty much every website (this one included, to be fair) a shower of competing ideas and ideologies (of varying degrees of sanity). What’s interesting – and perhaps more reasonable – about Cascio’s approach is that he isn’t adhering to either of the standard polar opposites of socialism and capitalism; he’s attempting to synthesise the two in this report from an imaginary future a few decades away:

Traditional capitalism was, arguably, driven by the desire to increase wealth, even at the expense of other values. Traditional socialism, conversely, theoretically wanted to increase equality, even if that meant less wealth. But both 19th/20th century economic models had insufficient focus on increasing resilience, and would often actively undermine it. The economic rules we started to assemble in the early 2010s seek to change that.


Decentralized diversity (what we sometimes call the “polyculture” model) means setting the rules so that no one institution or approach to solving a problem/meeting a need ever becomes overwhelmingly dominant. This comes at a cost to efficiency, but efficiency only works when there are no bumps in the road. Redundancy works out better in times of chaos and uncertainty — backups and alternatives and slack in the system able to counter momentary failures.

Some food for thought there, no? It’s informed by the networked and distributed technologies which surround us, but lacks the idealistic tang of utopian thinking… and compromise seems like a good idea from where I’m sitting, at least.

And while we’re talking about major upheavals to the way we do stuff nowadays, how about open source healthcare?

… in healthcare, state intervention artificially skews the model of service toward the most expensive kind of treatment. For example, the patent system encourages an R&D effort focused mainly on tweaking existing drugs just enough to claim that they’re “new,” and justify getting a new patent on them (the so-called “me too” drugs). Most medical research is carried out in prestigious med schools, clinics and research hospitals whose boards of directors are also senior managers or directors of drug companies. And the average GP’s knowledge of new drugs comes from the Pfizer or Merck rep who drops by now and then.


In an open-source healthcare system, someone might go to vocational school for accreditation as the equivalent of a Chinese “barefoot doctor.” He could set fractures and deal with other basic traumas, and diagnose the more obvious infectious diseases. He might listen to your cough, do a sputum culture and maybe a chest x-ray, and give you a round of zithro for your pneumonia. But you can’t purchase such services by themselves without paying the full cost of a college and med school education plus residency.

That’s a bit more extreme (or at least more detailed and close-focussed) than Cascio’s vision, but they both depend on a degree of decentralisation, with local systems picking up the slack where national institutions have failed. Given the increasing urbanisation of the world’s population, maybe devolving some governmental systems to independent local nodes would provide the flexibility we need to deal with these times of rapid change. [image by mugley]

Switzerland approves legal heroin program but keeps marijuana under control

Paul Raven @ 02-12-2008

drug injection paraphenaliaSounds a bit topsy-turvy, doesn’t it? But it’s quite true – in a national vote last weekend the Swiss decided to make a controversial legal heroin program a permanent part of the country’s healthcare infrastructure, but rejected decriminalising cannabis. [image by Todd Huffman]

It’s a mixed blessing, I suppose. Hell knows the ‘war on drugs’ in the UK and the US has done absolutely nothing to eradicate the problem, and I guess if people are going to take smack then I’d rather they weren’t burgling my stuff to pay for it (as has happened). But it seems odd that people who can see the pragmatism in that idea seemingly can’t see the logic behind abandoning attempts to control the cultivation and consumption of a slightly psychoactive plant.

What say you, readers – should it be “no victim, no crime”, or should the law do its best to protect people from their own potentially self-harming choices?