CLEVELAND, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- Aging experts cautioned Wednesday if scientists succeed in developing therapies to extend human lifespan by decades -- as some researchers currently are attempting -- the event could have profound implications for society.
Some experts at work in the area of slowing or stopping aging suggest human lifespan could be increased by up to 40 percent. One researcher said anti-aging drugs or therapies could allow women to reach an average lifespan of 112 years.
If such breakthroughs occur, "probably every social institute we know will be radically changed," Robert Binstock, professor of aging, health and society at Case Western University, told United Press International.
"We ought to be think ahead about this and consider how much we want to encourage the anti-aging research," said Binstock, who along with several of his colleagues wrote an article about the need for a public discussion about this topic in the Feb. 28 issue of Science.
"Our main point is we haven't even begun to think about this very much," he said. "We ought to get a better understanding of what potentially is going on."
If there are tens of millions of people ages 85-112 who are healthy, "the implications could be far more serious than stem cells or cloning," Binstock said.
"Serious ethical issues would arise if anti-aging interventions were not universally available, but were distributed in response to status (economic, social, or political), merit, nationality, or other criteria," Binstock's team writes in the journal. On the other hand, they said, "If access to anti-aging interventions were unlimited, radical societal changes would take place in virtually every social institution."
There also could be "problems of overpopulation, which could have worldwide implications ecologically," Binstock said. "In terms of public policy, we certainly would find it very difficult to have anything like the programs (such as social security) we have now," he added.
Some researchers have predicted significant advances in anti-aging therapies could arrive as soon as 10 years from now, Binstock's group said, so it might be prudent for the U.S. National Institutes of Health to lead a public debate on the potential ramifications of extending lifespan.
However, Huber Warner, associate director of the biology of aging program at NIH's National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md., said the prospect of extending lifespan is not imminent.
"I don't see anything on the horizon that all of a sudden we're going to start living 50 years longer due to some intervention," Warner told UPI. "The average life span is ... only increasing at the realm of a year per 20 years," he said.
Binstock's team writes in the journal that NIH is funding scientists who are trying to develop drugs to slow the aging process -- something that Warner said is misleading. Scientists are just beginning to understand the aging process, he said.
"We're first trying to figure out how it works," Warner said, noting the NIA is "funding a lot of research on fruit flies, worms, mice, yeast. The potential might be there to develop pills but we're not close at the moment," he commented. "We're still just learning what genes and biochemical processes are that are related to longevity."
He added, "The hope is that we will then use that information to figure out what might be regulating longevity in people but that's still in the developing stage."
Regarding whether NIH should hold a public forum on the implications of extending lifespan, Warner explained the mandate of the agency is to improve healthcare, which will lead indirectly to improved survival, so they are aware of the impact of increasing lifespan.
"It is an issue for society to debate, but it's no more the responsibility for the National Institute on Aging to do it as it is for any of the institutes of NIH to do it," he said.
Binstock, however, noted even if all cancers were miraculously cured, the average lifespan would only be increased by about two years. That is a small impact compared to what is predicted for anti-aging therapies, he said.
"Since the (NIH) is using public funds to do (aging research) they have a responsibility to let the public know what the implications of this are," he said.
(Reported by Steve Mitchell, UPI Medical Correspondent, in Washington)