by Patrick Cox
March 28, 2016

The world has reached “peak babies.” Global population will continue to increase for a while, simply because people are taking so much longer to die these days. When lifespans stop increasing, though, world population will fall. Eventually, the entire world will face the kinds of demographic problems that Japan and many other countries are dealing with today.

Incidentally, this was all foretold by Warren Thompson, America’s leading demographer through the 1950s.

I still run into people who are completely unaware that dramatically falling birth rates have put the human race on the path to depopulation. When I speak to a group, sometimes people get angry at me for even suggesting such a thing. I suspect that these angry people personally identify with the influential and respected intellectuals in government, academia, and media who made concern about overpopulation a core part of their self-image.

Herein lies a valuable lesson. We should learn from the waning of this extraordinary popular delusion that even the most settled science is subject to eventual revision. Moreover, we should realize that the overpopulation theory is just one example of the kind of apocalyptic fantasies that intellectuals throughout history have embraced.

This isn’t a new lesson, by the way. Basically every culture had some version of the folk tale in which some hysterical fear monger convinces others that “the sky is falling.” Historians have traced it at least 25 centuries back to the Buddhist story, Duddubha Jataka: The Sound the Hare Heard.

Given the permanence of this human characteristic (geneticists would say it is conserved), we’re probably going to see a shift from overpopulation hysteria to depopulation hysteria soon. I won’t participate, though I warn constantly that falling populations are going to bring serious problems. Fewer people is not actually the root of the problem, though. Rather, the problem is policies that don’t recognize that depopulation requires quite profound societal adjustments. When policies adjust, the problems will go away.

The biggest depopulation challenge is probably the constantly worsening dependency ratio, the number of contributors to dependents. Since efforts to increase birth rates have had little if any success, we know that the only reasonable way to improve the old-age dependency ratio is to increase human health and keep people out of the dependent column for as long as possible. There will be resistance from unions and others who want to stick to obsolete retirement expectations, but that too shall pass as pension funds and entitlement programs collapse due to demographic pressures.

So that sounded a little apocalyptic, didn’t it? Honestly, I’m an optimist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think things will get worse before they get better. I’m only acknowledging the cycles of creative destruction described by economist Joseph Schumpeter, the first modern economist to recognize the biological nature of market mechanisms.

So my long-term prediction is that anti-aging biotechnologies currently languishing under the wet blanket of bureaucratic oversight will eventually be liberated and then accelerated to increase health spans and reduce medical costs. This sort of policy about-face has taken place many times in the past when urgent need overcame institutional lethargy.

We saw this take place with the most recent emergence of the Ebola virus. We’ll see it again with Zika.

“Cataclysmic” Data

Practically every day, it seems, more alarming news comes from scientists studying the Zika virus. Last week, several important discoveries about Zika increased the seriousness of this outbreak significantly. Actually, the word “significantly” doesn’t do justice to the potential disaster this virus portends.

The most important news came from an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine titled, “Zika Virus Infection in Pregnant Women in Rio de Janeiro—Preliminary Report.” The article describes a study performed on 88 women at the Oswaldo Cruz clinic in Rio de Janeiro between September 2015 and January 2016. On page 5 of the article, we learn that developing fetuses in 42 women infected by the Zika virus between the 6th and 35th week of gestation were given ultrasound or Doppler examinations.

As the article reports, “Abnormal results on ultrasonography or Doppler studies were seen in 12 cases (29%).” Moreover, the birth defects detected in the womb were confirmed following delivery.

I assume you understand the magnitude and potential impact of this data, but let me tell you how a scientist in this field characterized it. I talked over the weekend with someone who is currently modifying his lab to handle the Zika virus. He said the data presented in the NEJM is “cataclysmic.” And so it is.

As you may know, I’ve debunked the public’s overblown fear of various diseases in the past. In this case, however, I think the public is underestimating the eventual impact of Zika infection.

We already knew that the Zika virus can cause birth defects. The increase in microcephaly and Zika infections is too well correlated for any other explanation. What we didn’t know, however, was how likely it is that a developing fetus would suffer serious birth defects if the mother is infected. Most adults don’t even know they are infected, so it was possible that only one out of 1,000 or more infected mothers would give birth to a child with neurological damage.

Now, we are beginning to get the real picture… and it is grim. This first Brazilian study indicates that about 30% of babies will develop abnormalities so severe that they can be detected visually by rather crude ultrasound examinations. I conclude, therefore, that we will discover other, less visible birth defects that will only become apparent as the affected child ages.

Other scientists have already predicted, as I’ve reported here, an increase in less obvious neurological disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. By the way, I don’t consider all cases of autism to be disorders.

But let’s assume that only a third of all pregnant women who are infected by the virus have babies with serious birth defects. Personally, I think it will be significantly higher than that, but let’s be conservative based on available data. What does this mean?

Obviously, it means that many women of child-bearing age are going to change their behavior. Governments are already telling women contemplating pregnancy not to travel to areas where mosquitos are transmitting Zika or, if they live in those areas, not to get pregnant. A lot of people in heavily infested areas are afraid.

As statistical evidence about the risks of Zika-induced birth defects is generated and spreads to the public, the fear will continue to ramp up. I think, by the way, that this fear is entirely rational, and I suspect that women will be more afraid than men.

I would probably be criticized by some feminists for pointing it out, but one of the commonly cited examples of genetically determined behavioral differences between men and women is attitudes about insects. Overall, women do seem more afraid of insects. Researchers have confirmed this, and I’ve seen it close up.

My daughter, even as an infant, feared bugs. Today, she hates the fact that she reacts with such innate fear to bugs that aren’t actually dangerous. Trust me, this can’t be blamed on her upbringing. She pumps iron, studies jujitsu, and is talking about getting her concealed carry permit when she turns 21. Conversely, my molecular biologist son loved bugs and still does. Even as a toddler, he would crawl into bushes on “park day” to capture spiders with his bare hands, which he would then show to his friends. Typically, the girls in his play group ran away, vocalizing distress, while the other boys moved in closer.

Geneticists have speculated that this difference in behavior is, in fact, rational. The reason is that insect bites with little impact on adults do have the potential to damage fragile developing fetuses. So the theory is that women are born with an instinct, mistakenly labeled a phobia, that serves to protect their unborn children. The Zika evidence certainly lends merit to this theory.

Yes, adult males are equally prone to Guillain-Barré syndrome and possible death from Zika infection, especially in countries that are not equipped with enough negative pressure ventilators (iron lungs). Nevertheless, I think most of us have a much greater emotional reaction to the possibility that an unborn child could be permanently and seriously handicapped by a simple mosquito bite.

Beyond the humanitarian tragedy of mental disability, there is the cost to families and societies. We don’t know what the cost of dealing with a child handicapped by the Zika virus will be, but it will be high. David Mandell, director of the Center for Mental Health Policy and Services Research at the University of Pennsylvania, estimates that the lifetime cost of dealing with intellectual disabilities in the US runs at about $2.4 million.

This does not, however, factor in the demographic impact of reduced birth rates. I have little doubt that US birth rates will fall if the virus moves into our mosquito populations, as experts predict. For countries such as Japan and South Korea, which acknowledge the dire economic impact of low birth rates and a worsening dependency ratio exacerbated by a rapidly growing aged population, Zika is a potential nightmare.

In fact, the Aedes albopictus mosquito, which is capable of spreading Zika, is present in both countries, as this Department of Interior graphic shows. You will also notice that Aedes albopictus is present in Italy, Spain, and Portugal—all suffering from slowed economic growth caused by dwindling native populations. Of course, much of the United States hosts the Aedes albopictus as well.

Prevalence of the Aedes albopictus mosquito

The second bit of dismal Zika news to emerge comes from the World Health Organization, which is saying that we have underestimated the ease of sexual transmission of Zika. In this AP story, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan is quoted saying that “reports and investigations in several countries strongly suggest that sexual transmission of the virus is more common than previously assumed.”

It doesn’t matter, though, if Zika is more STD or mosquito-borne disease; the psychological impact will be cumulative. The GAO has reportedly estimated that there will be 4 million cases of the disease in the Western Hemisphere alone. I haven’t actually verified that number, but it sounds about right. The GAO report states that the administration has requested almost $2 billion in emergency funding to fight Zika, but I assure you that the total will be much, much higher.

I’m morbidly fascinated by the arrival of this disease, which will reduce births further, even as many of the countries affected are beginning to experience sub-replacement birth rates. If I were writing a script or imagining a conspiracy theory, I would have rejected this scenario as too perfect.

At this point, most people in America are thinking of Zika as an exotic foreign problem, even though it is already in Florida and Texas. Epidemiologists have already predicted that the virus will make it into American mosquito populations, and I believe they are right.

So take another look at the map above to imagine the kind of impact that widespread Zika infection would have on politics, regulators, and markets. It will not only be couples of child-bearing age who will demand a solution to the threat of Zika-induced mental retardation—it will be their parents, worried about the health of future grandchildren. The people will demand action. And they’ll get it.

So we will be able to observe the process as governments first take their feet off the brakes that slow Zika virus drug and vaccine development. Then, they’ll hit the accelerator. Still, we should realize that the Zika virus is only exacerbating a demographic problem that is already at work.

The aging of society is producing the same kind of human and financial problems as Alzheimer’s rates and healthcare costs increase, but the scale will be much greater. As the demand for action to cure the Zika problem produces real vaccines and even cures that can be taken after infection, our institutions will eventually recognize that longer lives and falling birth rates demand the same kind of biotech solutions.

Though I’ve said it before, many top biogerontologists believe that metformin, rapamycin analogs, and other over-the-counter nutrients such as vitamin D and the NAD+ precursors could deliver a decade or more of dramatically improved health. To be effective, however, regulators are going to have to stop impeding and start supporting valid anti-aging therapies.

Behind the scenes, there are research programs in major universities that will be even more effective in terms of extending disease-free vigor. I’m trying, in fact, to get permission to write about one such program now. I’ll have more on that within the next few months, I hope.

“Peak Babies”, The Falling Sky and “Cataclysmic” Zika News was originally published in a slightly longer form at Transformational Technologies.