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Mega Trend 11+: COVID-19 is seen as a landmark moment in the evolution of life expectancy…and in the future, we end up living longer lives.

The devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been plain to see around the world. It is thought to be unlikely that the disease can be eradicated; the medium- and long-term effects on life expectancy remain uncertain. Thankfully though, there are some good reasons to be hopeful of a brighter outlook. In fact, there is some cause to speculate that we could see lifespans increasing faster than expected over the coming decades and that the history books could remember COVID-19 as the watershed moment that kickstarted a new era in higher life expectancy.

Tech rescue

In 2020, the world waited with bated breath to see how quickly vaccines could be created to help fight COVID-19. By early 2021, a handful had been deemed safe and effective by health bodies across the globe. While this was fantastic news in itself, there are further underlying causes for optimism.

Several of the COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) are based on mRNA technology; this works differently to historical vaccines, in that it “trains” the body’s cells to make a specific protein that triggers an immune response. Both vaccines proved remarkably effective against COVID-19 and some health experts now predict that we are only scratching the surface of mRNA’s potential, with talk of future promising applications in the fight against cancer.

We should also be encouraged by the rate at which the vaccines were developed, tested and approved. The World Health Organisation, amongst others, had warned that it may take years to develop an effective vaccine, or that it may never happen at all! Such caution had largely been extrapolated from recent history and prior expectations, but in the world’s time of need, COVID-19 vaccines were prioritised, funding was enhanced, production was scaled-up simultaneously with clinical trials and collaboration between scientists, medical professionals and regulators reached an all-time high (partly thanks to modern technology). This re-framed the art of the possible in speed of response.

The global roll-out of the vaccines remains an ongoing challenge, but the very fact that they exist to be produced and distributed gives us great hope. Not only could the future of mRNA technology be hugely exciting, but unlocking this potential could happen sooner than we might expect.

The (data) revolution will be catalysed

The world is certainly not short of highly-capable statisticians, modellers and data scientists, but everything starts with the data! When the very first case was identified in Wuhan in December 2019, this amounted to our first data point on the disease. Overnight, we all became part of a live data-collection program evolving in real time as the world raced to understand transmission rates, disease severity and effectiveness of possible treatments. For the statisticians amongst us, witnessing the pandemic unfold from the side-lines proved a frustrating experience at times. Over a year and a half in, there have now been upwards of 200 million known cases worldwide, but also many challenges to leverage the underlying data to its fullest potential.

  • The speed at which data could be collected and recorded was crucial to an extent never seen before, but many administration systems, digitised to varying degrees, did not necessarily accommodate a rapid rate of information flow.
  • Some historical recording practices also found themselves holding limited information (e.g. grouping records into wide age ranges), which detracted from the potential for detailed insight into a novel virus and its risk factors.
  • Recording methods vary not only by country, but sometimes within regions of a country or by an individual administrator’s discretion. For example, countries do not necessarily apply the same criteria to acknowledge COVID-19 as the direct cause of death. This makes the pooling and interpretation of data far more difficult.

The ability to “match up” data has also been mixed, with data-sharing agreements and integration between data sets often being insufficient to allow for timely flows of information.

The pandemic is likely to act as a “wake-up call” on the importance of data and the catalyst for investment in better collection techniques, international collaboration and integrated data systems. This is not only important in responding to new threats; efficient and far-reaching data systems could lead to insights that would otherwise never have even been imagined. Perhaps we will uncover the 21st century equivalent of smoking as a detriment to life expectancy. Of course, the privacy of personal data is (quite rightly) an important consideration, but with the evolution of data anonymisation techniques and more sophisticated approaches becoming embedded in data processing, data accessibility is likely to increase.

It’s a low-flu world

Historically, people have adapted their lifestyles in line with scientific developments and emerging threats. Sometimes the impact on life expectancy is obvious; smoking is far less common than in the middle of the 20th century after scientific studies uncovered its irrefutable health risks. Other times, the impact is more subtle and gradual; hygiene habits have improved incrementally with the advent and evolution of germ theory. Washing our hands wasn’t always the common practice it is today.

The pandemic is likely to prove similarly influential. We have all become closely acquainted with the invisible enemy of transmissible viruses and embedded this awareness into our daily routines. We hope to return to something close to normality in the not-too-distant future, but some new habits are likely to persist.

The previously health-conscious minority, who used to wear masks on the London underground or the New York subway pre-COVID, currently find themselves part of the majority. While this is not expected to remain mandatory indefinitely, many may still choose to continue this practice given its ubiquity in the past 18 months and its known benefits to public health.

Viral transmission chains are also likely to be reduced. Going to work with a minor cold would not have seemed abnormal in the recent past, but with our newfound alertness to viral transmission, this practice has not aged especially well! And with new “hybrid” working models taking root, there will likely be fewer people on public transport and mixing in offices in the first place.

Then there is ventilation. How many of us would ever have walked into a shop or restaurant in the past and made a mental note of the fresh air supply? The difference between outdoors and indoors is no longer just about the temperature, as the health benefits of open air have come to the fore. Ventilation may therefore become a more prominent consideration in building services, and drive how people socialise and which establishments they choose to visit. The combined effect of the above may all help to reduce the circulation of viral illnesses, meaning some of the effects of heavy flu seasons and “harsh winters” (like those we have seen in the past) could be partially dampened.

What do you think?

Will the positives outweigh the negatives in the aftermath of the pandemic? Are we at a watershed moment with increased longevity improvements on the horizon?

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