When the inventor of Pinyin, Zhou Youguang, died this past weekend, remembrances noted not only the linguist’s efforts to convert Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet, but also the fact that he had lived a very, very long life: Born under the rule of China’s last dynasty, Zhou died at age 111.
But the same day, experts at a panel discussion on the future of health in Beijing said that such old ages might not only be the norm for Chinese people born today, but that people might easily live 150 years or longer — given that the medical innovation and progress experts are hoping for allow China to catch up with more developed countries.
Thanks to advances in medicine, experts believe that the first person to live to age 150 has already been born, but at the moment, that’s only the case for those aging in developed countries with easy access to affordable, high-quality health care. Life expectancy in China is currently around 75 years, more than 3.5 years shorter than that of the U.S. and eight years shorter than that of Japan, the country with the highest life expectancy worldwide.
“If newborns today are expected to live to 150 years old, then there are many issues we have to talk about,” said Eric Chen, CEO of Team Curis Group, which develops new technologies for the health care sector.
Chen and other experts at last weekend’s event, organized by the Future Forum, believe that an array of new technologies, policy changes, and advancements in medicine could help the average Chinese person born today live much longer than Pinyin inventor Zhou.
For that to happen, the leading causes of death must be addressed. Cancer currently tops that list, accounting for nearly a third of all deaths in China.
“For the extension of life, we have to control chronic diseases like cancer,” said Qiao Youlin, the director of the cancer epidemiology department at Beijing Cancer Hospital.
A total of 3.12 million Chinese per year — or 8,550 a day, on average — are diagnosed with cancer. While experts on the panel said that the ultimate goal of cancer research is to find a cure, disparities in quality and access to health care also need to be addressed.
In China, the survival rate of cancer patients is just over 30 percent, according to a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Cancer. That’s less than half of the average survival rate in the U.S., where 66 percent of cancer patients are still alive five years after they were first diagnosed.
“When Chinese people get cancer, they are much more likely to die than Americans or Europeans, so we have to work on early diagnosis and prevention,” Qiao said.
Improving access to health care and reducing the disparity between rich and poor are important goals, but at the same time, new threats also have to be tackled, said Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer, the World Health Organization (WHO)’s representative in China.
“We are heading for a tsunami of noncommunicable disease. Today, half of Chinese are at pre-diabetes levels,” he said. In the past, the WHO has warned of the immense pressure that the diabetes epidemic and other non-communicable diseases like cancer can exert on the health sector.
Many diseases can be managed with drugs, but if Chinese people want to live until they are 150, improved treatment alone can’t keep them alive. Staying healthy for longer and preventing disease is imperative, Schwartländer said. Innovation and new technologies will be key to achieving this, and sometimes, that innovation can be as simple as making a bicycle ride more enticing.
“In Shenzhen and in Shanghai, the introduction of Mobike and Ofo is a fundamental revolution of how we move in cities,” he said, referring to two Chinese bike-sharing startups. “It’s as simple as being able to use a bicycle and just drop it anywhere for half a kuai, which not only addresses the fundamental problem of pollution but gives you exercise,” which could decrease the diagnosis rates for lung cancer and diabetes, he said.
A major commitment from top officials and wide-ranging policy changes similar to those that helped lift millions of Chinese out of poverty would have the biggest impact on improving health care China, William Haseltine, president of global think tank ACCESS Health International, said.
If scientific research can bring about new technologies, and innovative minds can make sure that they reach the people who need them most, there’s no reason why the term “old age” shouldn’t be redefined in China as well — even if Haseltine said that he’d put the cap at 120 rather than 150 years. “[In] leveling the genetic and environmental playing fields, there are limits, but there are also ways to break those limits. We can make most people live as long as the oldest people who live today,” he said.
(Header image: People practice tai chi at Fuxing Park in Shanghai, Feb. 9, 2016. Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images/VCG)