Today's old folks set to smash through longevity records
Except maybe in America, where life expectancy keeps dropping
Boffins working on a mathematical model to predict future human lifespans say that longevity records may be broken by 2060 – and the sky's the limit from there. They don't think we've even approached the ceiling of how long a well cared-for human can live.
Those born between 1910 and 1950 – the next cohort to reach "advanced old age" – have the potential to add a decade to the "human mortality plateau." That's the point at which life expectancy typically levels off, professors David McCarthy and Po-Lin Wang write in their paper.
The interesting thing about that is the study looked at mortality data from the 1700s up to today, and found the plateau was relatively unchanged over that period. That's a very long time to go without much of a change in maximum lifespan.
With that plateau so stable for so long, the researchers (a pair of risk management and insurance professors from University of Georgia and University of South Florida) suggest that at first glance the evidence suggests there is a hard limit to human lifespan. Under that assumption, improvements in mortality rates are largely due to a phenomenon known as "mortality compression" that sees premature death being prevented.
But, they observe, there are two historical periods in which the plateau has risen. The first, which came in the second half of the 19th century, saw the plateau jump by around five years. The researchers speculate it may be related to a wave of improvements in public health and medical technology – like the acceptance of germ theory and the widespread adoption of vaccines.
We're experiencing the second rise now – particularly those of us born between 1910 and 1950, who also lived through leaps in healthcare technology and understanding. This, the pair write, indicates we're not just compressing mortality, but postponing it entirely. The speculate that the actual biological limit of the human body hasn't been reached.
"The timing of these episodes of mortality postponement explain why longevity records have been so slow to increase in recent years – cohorts old enough to have broken longevity records were too old to experience the current bout of postponement," the researchers opine.
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Sorry, Americans – we're getting left out
The pair observe in their paper that mortality postponement – their term for when we don't just compress the candlestick chart of human lifespan but increase the range entirely – could vary wildly. Indeed it does, depending on modelling assumptions – this is predictive work, after all.
It's also not a sure thing.
"Cohorts born before 1950 will only have the potential to break existing longevity records if policy choices continue to support the health and welfare of the elderly, and the political, environmental and economic environment remains stable," the researchers conclude.
For citizens of the US, the signs are already indicating that's not the case. Late last year US health officials said that life expectancy in that country was down for the second year in a row – now sitting at just 76.1 years.
Other countries have experienced a rebound since COVID-19 deaths have begun slowing. There could be many reasons for lower life expectancies and rising maternal and childhood mortality rates in the United States.
Japan – where McCarthy and Wang observe women are at the forefront of human longevity – has seen its life expectancy increase beyond pre-pandemic levels to 84.5 years. In the UK, averages are still down from pre-COVID-19 levels, but have increased slightly since last year to 80.8 years. ®