THE BIONIC MAN IS NO LONGER JUST A TV CHARACTER: In 2020, sophisticated robotic limbs, spinal implants, and stem cell therapies typically restore mobility for those paralyzed by injury or disease. Other wonders of medical technology are now keeping our bodies moving longer, but the biggest breakthrough at the doctor's office is the new generation of drugs designed to prevent our minds from turning on us.
Artificial hearts and lungs have proved harder to make than medical pioneers dreamed back in the 1970s. Coming faster to the market, however, are personalized drugs tailored to our individual genetic makeup. Several firms are racing to commercialize genetic mapping, with the goal of sequencing a human genome for $1,000. Jay Flatley, CEO of the San Diego biotech company Illumina, has predicted that mapping the genome of babies at birth could be routine by 2019.
Another long-promised breakthrough: help for the aging mind. Effective Alzheimer's drugs — those that forestall the growth of the brain plaques and tangles that mark the disease — could be available within a decade, predicts David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams and God. Some "smart drugs" already being tweaked in the lab may shave years off your brain's age. So though these meds may not be a time machine, someday we will likely be able to take pills that restore some of the zest of youth.
"The idea of brushing your teeth in the morning, then taking a pill that gets your brain back to the fast, high-functioning brain of your 20s, is amazing to me," says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. "But we may soon get there."