Drs. Steven Austad and S. Jay Olshansky, two respected college professors who have been friends for years, have placed an historic bet between themselves that may net the winner a billion dollars. It is said to be the most lucrative wager in history.
Only one hitch: neither Austad nor Olshansky will be alive to collect the pay-off.
This outlandish affair was initiated more than 20 years ago when Austad, a biologist, publicly speculated that the first human to reach the age of 150 “is probably alive now.”
Olshansky, an expert in longevity, vociferously disagreed.
On September 15, 2000, the two put up $150 each and signed a contract that spelled out the terms of the gamble: on January 1, 2150, a team of three scientists will rule whether a 150-year old human (of sound mind) is alive. The team will then pronounce the winner of the bet.
The original stake by each professor was placed in investments; since then, the two have added funds, so the winning pot is now estimated to exceed a billion dollars in the year 2150.
Asked about his chances recently by The New York Times, Olshansky said, “Oh, I am going to win. Ultimately biology will determine which one of us is right. That’s why I am so confident.”
Austad is equally entrenched, citing ongoing scientific breakthroughs which extend life. “I’m more convinced than ever I am correct,” he said. “A 150-year old person is only about 20 percent older than the current record holder.”
One of the basic issues in gerontology is the existence of a genetic timetable — do humans have a lifespan limitation that, even with the miracles of modern medicine, is insurmountable?
Olshansky firmly stands behind the idea of a “biological warranty.” The example he frequently cites is our incapability of running a two-minute mile — that won’t happen he says, human bodies are not able to move that swiftly. The same constraints apply to life extension.
In The Future of Human Longevity, Olshansky and fellow scientist Dr. Bruce Carnes wrote: “There are biological warranty periods for living things that influence how long they are capable of living…once people have achieved their personal life span potential, it becomes extremely difficult to overcome the inherent limitations of their biology. Although life expectancy limits for humans have certainly not been reached, the evidence suggests biological warranty periods for bodies are considerably lower than the estimates of 100+.”
Olshansky is very leery of metrics that are guesses. These estimates of longevity, he says, are “made up in thin air. There’s no science behind it at all.”
For the record, Olshansky has established a propensity for making accurate scientific predictions. Years ago, he warned of the dangers of a pandemic. Well before Covid-19, Olshansky pointed out that in our current environment, pathogens could be transported across the globe in hours. “We basically have set ourselves up for the explosive emergence of infectious disease.”
Dr. Austad, who is also credited with a great deal of foresight, has a different perspective on aging: he believes that those born today may well have a life expectancy of 100. Also, they may have a better chance of suffering less than those in the past.
“During the 20th century, life expectancy in the United States surged 63%, to 77 years from 48,” Austad wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “That progress was driven by better hygiene, the development of vaccines and antibiotics, and, later on, better diagnosis and treatment of individual diseases. Similar progress in the 21st century will easily take us to a 100-year lifespan.”
The new dynamic, Austad stated, will be the discovery of medical interventions that slow aging — he referred to it as “curing aging,” a different laboratory mindset from trying to eradicate fatal illnesses like cancer. He mentioned several drugs that are possibilities, but there are “a ton of others lining up to enter human trials.” He’s confident breakthroughs are on the way.
“All this stuff is in the realm of possibility, it’s just not here yet,” Austad declared.
As to his bet with Olshansky, Austad says that he will “win in a walk.” But, he adds “it’s going to be our descendants who get to collect that money.”