vivienne westwood

You know the saying, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer…well here’s a new one for you: The rich know how to live longer, the poor will still drop dead way earlier. I’m still smoothing it out, but you get the gist.

No, knowing how to live longer is not (totally) because rich people gorge themselves on $11 kale smoothies and spend a bundle on fancy gym memberships. The rich are going to live sci-fi-movie-lifetimes longer than the rest of us thanks to expensive science.

Ever see that “South Park” episode where Magic Johnson finds out how to cure AIDS (by mainlining money into his body)? The secret to a longer life is kind of like that…except Kenny will die a lot sooner, and a lot poorer.

As it stands currently, the rich already outlive the poor by an average of 12.2 years. According to Linda Marsa, UCLA teacher and author of “Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health”, college-educated white men will make it to around 80 years of age while their counterparts with just high school diplomas will be lucky to make it past age 67. (For women, it’s 84 and 73 respectively.) Sixty-seven is still a spring chicken by most accounts. Seems a shame to make that a cut-off point for our hardest working people. But that’s what a lifetime of hard work will do to you.

The gap in life expectancy between the educated and uneducated, or rich vs. poor, as the case may be, shows white females who didn’t complete high school will die five years before the same demographic in previous generations. In other words, if your mom didn’t finish high school and died at age 70, you might not make it past 65 today. If we have one birthright, isn’t it to live as long as possible?

But what about science? After all, we’re growing body parts on 3D printers, right?

There are huge strides being made in longevity research. My daughter, and others being born today could live will into triple digits just as hitting 70 is commonplace today. Marsa says that within the next half-century we could see the “science of longevity” extend our lives and keep us active well into our nineties and beyond. Betty White, are you reading this? You might still have another 30 years in you, girl.

According Marsa, Harvard recently discovered age-reversing properties in a chemical called NAD, that enhances mitochondria (the energy source in cells). “After just a week, tissue from older mice resembled that of six-month-old mice, an ‘amazingly rapid’ rate of reversal that astonished scientists,” she notes. “In human years, this would be like a 60-year-old converting to a 20-year-old practically before our eyes, delivering the tantalising dream of combining the maturity and wisdom of age with the robust vitality of youth.”

Yes, science is working to extend our lives, but genetics do play a huge role in how long we’re likely to live, even despite environmental factors. Marsa writes in Aeon, “Extensive research on centenarians reaching age 100 and beyond show it’s not healthier habits or positive attitudes that contribute to longevity, but largely genes.” So here’s where the expensive science comes into play. “Now scientists are busily sifting through millions of DNA markers to spot the constellation of longevity genes carried in every cell of these centenarians’ bodies. The hope here is to concoct an anti-ageing pill by synthesising what these genes make.”

But science-enhanced longevity still won’t be for everyone. “As novel compounds slow or even reverse ageing, the longevity divide could become a gulf as wide as the Grand Canyon,” says Marsa. And according to  S Jay Olshansky, a longevity researcher and professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “The wealthy will experience an accelerated increase in life expectancy and health, and everyone else will go in the opposite direction.”

Even though the technology may be there to give any or all of us extra years, lower income living means more stress, and we know that stress invites diseases, some of which are life-threatening like high blood pressure and heart disease, says Marsa. Add to that the less healthier diets prevalent in lower income communities, environmental toxins at work and at home, and it’s not difficult to see how years can be lost just by a socioeconomic divide. The wealthy, on the other hand, are more likely to live in cleaner neighborhoods, and less likely to work factory or physical labor jobs that can mean exposure to toxins. They eat better and even with Obamacare, have better insurance than the poor.

Aging is a privilege we all don’t get to experience. And for the already-privileged among us, it’s about to become even more of a luxury, while long futures for the world’s poor is not as bright. Where 80-year-olds may be as active and common as 50-year-olds are currently, there is no science that can reverse a life of hard labor, stress over being able to pay bills and limited access to healthy food and better healthcare.

“We stand at the threshold of two distinct futures,” writes Marsa, “one where we have a frail, rapidly ageing population that saps our economy, and another where everyone lives much longer and more productive lives.” But hopefully those who do get to live longer, see enough good people die too early that they make the efforts to give everyone a chance to see 100 and beyond.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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