Bittersweet News: Science Says We Can Only Live To Be 115 Years Old

Photo by David Harry Stewart

Photo by David Harry Stewart

All the more reason to live to your utmost now, seeing as how this is all we get.

“'It seems highly likely we have reached our ceiling,' said Dr. Vijg, an expert on aging at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. 'From now on, this is it. Humans will never get older than 115.'

Dr. Vijg and his graduate students Xiao Dong and Brandon Milholland published the evidence for this pessimistic prediction on Wednesday in the journal Nature. It’s the latest volley in a long-running debate among scientists about whether there’s a natural barrier to the human life span.

Leading figures in the debate greeted the new study with strong — and opposing — reactions.

'It all tells a very compelling story that there’s some sort of limit,' said S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has made a similar argument for over 25 years.

James W. Vaupel, the director of the Max-Planck Odense Center on the Biodemography of Aging, has long rejected the suggestion that humans are approaching a life span limit. He called the new study a travesty.

'It is disheartening how many times the same mistake can be made in science and published in respectable journals,' he said.

Dr. Vaupel bases his optimism on the trends in survival since 1900.

A child born in the United States in 1900 had an average life expectancy just short of 50 years. An American child born today can expect to live on average to age 79. Japan’s average life expectancy at birth has risen the furthest of any country so far, to 83 years.

But when Dr. Vijg and his students looked closely at the data on survival and mortality, they saw something different.

The scientists charted how many people of varying ages were alive in a given year. Then they compared the figures from year to year, in order to calculate how fast the population grew at each age.

The fastest-growing portion of society has been old people, Dr. Vijg found. In France in the 1920s, for example, the fast-growing group of women was the 85-year-olds.

As average life expectancy lengthened, this peak shifted as well. By the 1990s, the fast-growing group of Frenchwomen was the 102-year-olds. If that trend had continued, the fastest-growing group today might well be the 110-year-olds.

Instead, the increases slowed down and appear to have stopped. When Dr. Vijg and his students looked at data from 40 countries, they found the same overall trend.

The shift toward growth in ever-older populations started slowing in the 1980s; about a decade ago, it stalled. This might have occurred, Dr. Vijg and his colleagues said, because humans finally have hit an upper limit to their longevity.

Given the data, the scientists predict the future will look a lot like the present. 'We expect that the oldest person alive will be around 115 years for the foreseeable future,' said Brandon Milholland, who worked with Dr. Vijg on the study.Given the data, the scientists predict the future will look a lot like the present. “We expect that the oldest person alive will be around 115 years for the foreseeable future,” said Brandon Milholland, who worked with Dr. Vijg on the study.

...

The best hope for our species is not to extend our life spans, Dr. Vijg argues, but to lengthen our years of healthy living — with healthy habits and perhaps drugs that can repair some of the cellular damage that comes with time.

'There’s a good chance to improve health span — that’s the most important thing,' said Dr. Vijg."

-Carl Zimmer via The New York Times