How Long can Humans Live

03/11/2016

The oldest human who ever lived was Frenchwoman Jeanne Louise Calment, who died in 1997 at the ripe old age of 122. Despite official Indonesian documentation verifying Mbah Gotho as the oldest person in the world at 145 years, this claim has been rejected due to lack of physical evidence. According to American researchers, the current record is unlikely to be broken, with the ceiling for human lifespan appearing to be stuck at around 115 years.

Using data from 41 countries and territories from the Human Mortality Database, the team found that life expectancy at birth has increased over the last century. Advances in childbirth and maternity care have helped people live longer, as have the development of antibiotics, vaccines, and access to clean water. Despite advances in health measures, however, we may have reached our natural peak. While large gains in survival rates have been seen for ages 70 and up, the rate of improvement drops rapidly for ages 100 or more.

Humans experienced the largest increase in maximum death rates between 1970 and the early 1990s, with mortality rates rising 0.15 years every year. A plateau was reached in the 90s, however, with the odds of someone living beyond 125 in any given year currently less than 1 in 10,000. According to Jan Vijg, co-author of the study, “The chances are very high that we [have] really reached our maximum allotted lifespan for the first time ... If anything you would have expected more Jeanne Calments in recent years, but there aren’t."

Not everyone agrees with the study, however, with James Vaupel from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research saying the team reached “one-sided conclusions”. According to Vaupel, life expectancy rates have not yet plateaued in Japan, which has the world’s highest life expectancy, nor in France or Italy, which have large populations and high life expectancies. Researchers also cited future developments in medicine that could further increase maximum lifespan, which the paper does not address.

Silicon Valley hedge fund manager Joon Yun is one person leading towards optimism, launching a $1M prize challenging scientists to “hack the code of life” and push the human lifespan past its apparent maximum of about 120 years. The Palo Alto Longevity Prize will be awarded in the first instance to any projects that restore vitality and extend lifespan in mice by 50 percent, with more money offered for progressively greater feats that solve the ageing problem. 

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