March 12, 2004
Collapsing European Populations: Time To Reverse Aging

The Daily Telegraph (free registration required) has an interesting article on demographic trends in Latvia and other European countries.

"Abortion on demand, which carries no social stigma, is almost as common as live birth." The collapse in the fertility rate has now continued so long that further contraction appears inevitable. The United Nations forecasts that Latvia will lose 44 per cent of its population by 2050. The projected collapse for Estonia is 52 per cent, Russia 30 per cent, Italy 22 per cent, Poland 15 per cent and Greece 10 per cent. Britain will grow slowly to 66 million, while France and Germany will contract gently.

The governments are changing their policies on taxes and benefits to encourage child birth. Will this work? Past attempts by governments to do so are hardly encouraging. As an extreme example Romania during the communist years tried drastic measures to boost birth rates.

Although government expenditures on material incentives rose by 470 percent between 1967 and 1983, the birthrate actually decreased during that time by 40 percent. After 1983, despite the extreme measures taken by the regime to combat the decline, there was only a slight increase, from 14.3 to 15.5 per 1,000 in 1984 and 16 per 1,000 in 1985. After more than two decades of draconian anti- abortion regulation and expenditures for material incentives that by 1985 equalled half the amount budgeted for defense, Romanian birthrates were only a fraction higher than those rates in countries permitting abortion on demand.

Romanian demographic policies continued to be unsuccessful largely because they ignored the relationship of socioeconomic development and demographics. The development of heavy industry captured most of the country's investment capital and left little for the consumer goods sector. Thus the woman's double burden of child care and full-time work was not eased by consumer durables that save time and labor in the home. The debt crisis of the 1980s reduced the standard of living to that of a Third World country, as Romanians endured rationing of basic food items and shortages of other essential household goods, including diapers. Apartments were not only overcrowded and cramped, but often unheated. In the face of such bleak conditions, increased material incentives that in 1985 amounted to approximately 3.61 lei per child per day--enough to buy 43 grams of preserved milk--were not enough to overcome the reluctance of Romanian women to bear children.

Part of the reason why the Ceacescu regime failed to sustain an increase in the birth rate in Romania is that an expenditure level that equalled half the annual defense level of Romania was still only enough to buy each child 43 grams of preserved milk per day. Well, think about those 43 grams as calories. Fat is 9 calories per gram while sugar and protein are 4 calories per gram. So the Romanians were so poor that half their defense budget could pay for only a small fraction of all their children's daily calorie needs. Still, even pronatalist policies by Western European countries seem to be having little effect as free child care and other benefits have done little to slow the decline in birth rates in Scandinavia.

Children who grow up to earn high incomes pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. Yet the idea of aiming for an increase in the high income-earning population rarely shows up in public debates about social policy and the idea is totally ignored by advocates of high levels of immigration. In an article about retirement and children that Jonathan Rauch wrote for The Atlantic back in 1989 he puts his finger on the core of the problem.

If boys and girls grew up to become industrial machinery instead of men and women, it would be easy to see that everybody had a stake in other peoples children.

But how to go from that observation to useful social policies is hardly obvious. One problem with pronatalist policies that dole out equal amounts per child regardless of income is that they essentially become incentives for the poorest and least educated to have children. An amount of money that is a lot for a poor person is not much for a high income earner. So equally sized benefits for all children become a recipe for growing the size of the impoverished class. But the amount of money needed to provide substantial incentives for those who earn higher incomes to have children would likely be politically unacceptable. The cry would go out against subsidizing the rich and the amount of money involved have to be so large that other programs would have to be cut to pay for it.

So can policy makers do anything at all to prevent the collapse of their populations? One argument I've made for other reasons, to accelerate education, would also likely have the effect of increasing family sizes. Increased education is anti-natalist in part because it delays the beginning point when women will be ready to have children. That education-caused delay is acting as a Darwinian selective pressure on the population of industrialized societies.

Part of the twin data analysis aimed to discover the effect that social, psychological and historical factors had on the number and timing of children born to the 2,710 pairs of twins studied.

The researchers found many of the variations in the threetraits were controlled by social factors such as religion and education (5). For example, Roman Catholic women had 20 per cent higher reproductive fitness than other religions. University educated women had 35 per cent lower fitness than those who left school as early as possible.

"I was staggered by the results we got," said Dr Owens. "When we decided to control for these factors, I wasn't expecting anything to come out of it. I thought, 'let's just run with the analysis'. But there was a massive difference in the number of children born to families with a religious affiliation. Many of the Catholic twins we studied had an average family of five children, where other families were having only one or two children.

"We also found that mothers with more education were typically having just one child at an older age. Their reproductive fitness was much lower than their peers who left school as early as possible. Again, and again, our analyses for these two factors came back with the same results."

The influence of religion and education in family size may seem an obvious finding - but what the scientists found really astonishing was that after controlling for these social factors, genetic changes were influencing the three life traits studied.

"Even after we controlled for these social factors, there was still lots of genetically heritable genetic variation in the three life history traits. This is a really unexpected finding."

However, he cautions against linking this work with the possibility of a eugenic programme for selective human breeding.

"Looking to the future, I would expect to pick up genetic changes within the ten generations (6) since industrialisation. However, what this work doesn't indicate or find, is a genetic marker for human reproduction - so you can't breed for early reproduction from our data. All the traits that we have examined are controlled by interactions between the environment and many genes."

The future work aims to understand more fully, the contribution psychological factors make, says Dr Owens. "We also want to repeat our experiments using twins databases elsewhere, to really put our results into a 'western world' context," he said.

Some of the genetic markers he can't find are probably alleles which enhance intelligence. Other genetic markers might be factors that cause people to like children or to act impulsively. Also, genes could be selected for that increase the level of sex drive or that decrease the selectivity of who one is attracted to. The more general idea here is that the genetic variants being selected among are most likely ones that affect cognitive function in a variety of ways.

An extremely appealing approach to the problems caused by declining bith rate would be to develop rejuvenation treatments. Populations won't decrease if people do not die. The half billion dollars that Aubrey de Grey wants to jumpstart eternal youthfulness research seems like pretty small potatoes compared to the future benefit.

Just how small a cost is biomedical research as a way to solve the aging population problem faced by Western countries? Well, to put it in perspective the United States government has $45 trillion in unfunded liabilities as a result of the aging of the population. (also see more from Alex Tabarrok on this here and here and the discussion on Arnold Kling's blog here). When I look at the financial consequences of the declining birth rates and longer life expectancies my first reaction is that we need an absolutely massive effort to develop therapies that will reduce aging. The size of our liabilities dwarf any amount of money that could possibly be spent on research to reverse aging. Aubrey de Grey argues that the current widespread fatalism about the inevitability of aging is unjustified by our current level of understanding of the causes and possible treatments for aging. This fatalism is greatly holding back the rate of progress. Though at least stem cell therapy research is being pursued for less ambitious reasons and so rejuvenation therapies are being pursued anyway, albeit at a slower rate than would be possible if serious money was thrown at the problem. Aubrey argues that with proper funding 7 approaches for doing rejuvenation could all be tried on mice within a decade's time. So lets get started!

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 March 12 05:58 PM  Trends Demographic

Reason said at March 12, 2004 8:00 PM:

The Methuselah Foundation is an effort by Dave Gobel and Aubrey de Grey to bootstrap our way out of the negative public perception and funding feedback cycle:

The latest initiative is The Three Hundred (which I am signed up for). It's been well-received to date:

Aubrey goes into a little more detail about this perception/funding cycle in his piece at the Longevity Meme:

The Methuselah Foundation and the Methuselah Mouse Prize are making great progress. The comments by donors (embedded in the donor list pages) make for thought-provoking reading.

This is one of the latest:

I am a funeral director by trade and have seen more than my share of death. It is never pretty, and some of the things I have seen are terrifying. If you have ever thought about how peaceful someone looked in a casket, let me let you in on a little secret, they didn't look that way before we embalmed them. I have yet to pick someone up from the morgue that looked glad to be there.

The day will come for most of us when death approaches and we will go through a list of things we wish we had done. If only I had started my diet earlier, why didn't I keep my new years resolution to exercise? Don't let wishing you had donated to the Methuselah Mouse Prize be one of the last things that goes through your mind.

Before you know it one of my friends or I will be coming for you, put us out of work before we do.

Fly said at March 13, 2004 6:53 PM:

Recent advances in biotech have enormous potential.

Old people should be viewed as a resource rather than a growing burden. Fund the research that will allow them to continue contributing.

Likewise, fund research to cure mental illness and addiction. (Also criminal behavior.)

Education is key for a productive population. Fund research into the biological underpinnings of learning. As brain biology is better understood, technology to augment learning should follow. (My hope is that technological evolution will overcome negative demographic trends.)

Fund research into a cheap energy replacement for fossil fuels.

This article, , on fat stem cells is interesting. Perhaps our fat cells could be mobilized to heal, repair, and rejuvenate our bodies. Supplying the right combination of growth factors in the proper concentration might convert a fraction of our body fat into appropriately differentiated stem cells, which could then migrate to appropriate sites for rejuvenation.

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