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Have Humans Hit Their Maximum Lifespan?

Researchers say 115 years old is the ceiling for most of us—with a few outliers able to live a bit longer

María Esther Heredia Lecaro de Capovilla lived to be 116 years and 347 days old. Here she is at age 115. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Maybe some new miracle drug or nanotech solution will help humans live for hundreds of years. But a new study reports bad news for anyone slamming kale smoothies, popping supplements and running up mountainsides with hopes of pushing the limits of human longevity. The human body likely has a natural limit to age, and we’re already pushing against that ceiling, reports Carl Zimmer for The New York Times.

The study, published in the journal Nature, was based on data from 40 countries in the Human Mortality Database. Lifespan has globally has made huge strides in the last century due to reduced infant mortality, the rise of antibiotics and more. In America people went from living roughly 47 years in 1900 to 79 today.

But after age 100, all modern advances in healthcare have still not yet improved longevity. “Demographers as well as biologists have contended there is no reason to think that the ongoing increase in maximum lifespan will end soon,” lead author of the study Jan Vijg says in a press release. “But our data strongly suggest that it has already been attained and that this happened in the 1990s.”

In other words, chances of living to 100 have increased dramatically. After that, there are no drugs, treatments or lifestyle changes than can increase lifespan. Based on detailed information of 534 people who lived into extremely old age, the team found that in the 1960s, the oldest person lived to 111. In the 1990s, the oldest age reached 115, but pushing that upper limit has since stalled. According to their calculations, the average ceiling for human lifespan is 115, and the maximum lifespan is 125.

There is at least one exception. Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment passed away in 1997 at the age of 122, the oldest officially documented person on record. According to Vign’s calculations, however, she’s an outlier and it’s unlikely we’ll see anyone break that record. “You’d need 10,000 worlds like ours to have the chance that there would be one human who would become 125 years,” he tells Zimmer.

Henne Holstege from VU University, Amsterdam, who has studied supercentenarians, those who have made it past age 110, tells Nicola Davis at The Guardian that the study makes sense. “There seems to be a wall of mortality that modern medicine cannot overcome,” she says. “If you die from heart disease at 70, then the rest of your body might still be in relatively good health. So, a medical intervention to overcome heart disease can significantly prolong your lifespan. However, in centenarians not just the heart, but all bodily systems, have become aged and frail. If you do not die from heart disease, you die from something else.”

Not everyone agrees. James W. Vaupel, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock and head of the Center in Odense, rejects the conclusions of the study, arguing that demographic trends are still going up. “It is disheartening how many times the same mistake can be made in science and published in respectable journals,” he tells Zimmer.

In fact, a cottage industry has developed in recent years telling people to prepare for almost limitless lifespans. Aubrey de Grey from Cambridge University famously claimed in 2004 that the first person to live to 1,000 was already alive. He believes advances in cellular repair developed by his SENS Research Foundation will end aging as we know it.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted that technology would merge with humanity and lead to near immortality in his 2006 book The Singularity is Near. While technologies like the gene-editing technique CRISPR and nanoscale machines may one day overcome death, for the time being humans are subject to nature and the incremental improvements of modern medicine.

“Further progress against infectious and chronic diseases may continue boosting average life expectancy, but not maximum lifespan,” Vijg says in the press release, pointing out that science needs to overcome the genetics that determine lifespan to make any progress. “Perhaps resources now being spent to increase lifespan should instead go to lengthening healthspan—the duration of old age spent in good health.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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