Health & Wellbeing

Does human lifespan have a limit – and have we already reached it?

According to new research, the human lifespan may have an absolute natural limit of 125 years
According to new research, the human lifespan may have an absolute natural limit of 125 years
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According to new research, the human lifespan may have an absolute natural limit of 125 years
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According to new research, the human lifespan may have an absolute natural limit of 125 years

Thanks to the never-ending march of science, babies born today can expect to live much longer than those born 100 years ago. While it may seem natural to believe the trend will continue with constant improvements to our understanding of health and medicine, scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine believe that not only is there a natural limit to the maximum age humans can reach, but we hit that peak 20 years ago.

It's important to note that there's a difference between life expectancy and maximum lifespan. The former is the number of years the average person is expected to live, based on the year of their birth, sex, health and other environmental factors. This number has seen the highest growth over the past century, with babies born in the US in 2014 expected to reach 78.8 years, up from about 47 in 1900.

Maximum lifespan, on the other hand, is the upper limit of how long the oldest humans can possibly live, thanks to what the researchers describe as "an inadvertent byproduct of fixed genetic programs for early life events, such as development, growth and reproduction."

Jeanne Calment, a French woman who passed away in 1997, is the current record holder for reaching the ripest of old ages, at 122 years. And according to the Einstein researchers, Calment was bumping up against the absolute maximum a human could live, with their estimates putting that full-stop at age 125.

"Demographers as well as biologists have contended there is no reason to think that the ongoing increase in maximum lifespan will end soon," says senior author Jan Vijg. "But our data strongly suggest that it has already been attained and that this happened in the 1990s."

To reach that conclusion, the researchers analyzed data from the Human Mortality Database. According to the study, much of the increase in life expectancy over the 20th century was due to reducing early-life mortality, as improvements in medicine led to fewer deaths of infants, children and young people. Late-life mortality also improved markedly, with people between the ages of 80 and 100 seeing the greatest gains in survival rates since 1900. Beyond 100 though, things didn't change too much, regardless of their year of birth.

"This finding indicates diminishing gains in reducing late-life mortality and a possible limit to human lifespan," says Vijg.

The researchers then shifted their focus from late-life mortality figures to data on maximum reported age at death (MRAD), using statistics from the International Database on Longevity. Plotting out the annual MRAD of the four countries with the most people aged over 110 – France, Japan, the UK and the US – the team found that between 1968 and 1995, the age at death increased rapidly. In the 20 years since, however, the trend stopped and in fact, decreased slightly.

While the researchers acknowledge that their calculations are based on a fairly small sample size, they "feel that the observed trajectories are compelling and our results strongly suggest that human lifespan has a natural limit." They put the average maximum lifespan at 115, and approximated the absolute limit at 125.

Plenty of promising research is being done in hopes of expanding human longevity, including caloric restriction, switching on genes that increased the lifespan of worms, using stem cells to reactivate cell regeneration, and clearing out senescent cells. But, as Vijg points out, these kinds of techniques may help to improve life expectancy, but breaking through that upper ceiling is far more challenging.

"Further progress against infectious and chronic diseases may continue boosting average life expectancy, but not maximum lifespan," says Vijg. "While it's conceivable that therapeutic breakthroughs might extend human longevity beyond the limits we've calculated, such advances would need to overwhelm the many genetic variants that appear to collectively determine the human lifespan. Perhaps resources now being spent to increase lifespan should instead go to lengthening healthspan—the duration of old age spent in good health."

The research was published in the journal Nature.

Source: Albert Einstein College of Medicine

13 comments
amazed W1
Time for a bit more evolution? I doubt that humans have been under any significant evolutionary pressure for the past 5000 years, specially with our present day benign and humane approach to disabilities of all kinds, mental as well as physical. But exactly what would generate the situation and the consequent natural selection which led to increased lifespan is difficult to guess.
Bob
In Genesis God set the maximum lifespan to 120 years after the Flood. It is still the limit after thousands of years. As our current generation of obese and out of shape people reach old age the average lifespan will likely begin dropping. As a matter of fact it has dropped from 78 to 76 for men in just the past four years.
habakak
Most likely this is not the case. Our lifespans are limited due to our bodies physically degrading (and our spirits maybe a bit too?). If we can slow down that degradation process (I don't know if we'll ever halt it), we could arguably live to 150 or even 200 years. So far we've not made any concrete progress down this path, but maybe with developing AI that is billions of times smarter than us with vastly more processing power, we can understand the human genome to the point where we can achieve part of such an outcome at least.
guzmanchinky
I think this article makes the assumption that no breakthroughs in tolomeres or other research is applied.
Rocky Stefano
#Bob this isn't about God. Science has time and time again explained what religion passed on as "faith stories". Cause you know Bob, Adam and Eve were REAL people. No dinosaurs in the Bible, the Torah or the Qur'an. Read a book called The Thousandth Floor. Its fascinating but what seems futuristic in a book only set 200 years in the future from now to me seems entirely plausible in the next 30-50.
Wolf0579
Bob, this is science. Your "god" is a human invention. Grow up and discard your primitive bronze age programming. Religions are our FIRST ATTEMPTS at explaining the world, AND IT SHOWS. We have moved beyond, and we are getting results religionists could only dream about. As far as the article goes... don't listen to pessimists! Our sciences are still in their infancy. When our technology is a million years old, and they tell me we have reached the limits of what's possible, I'll be more likely to believe it... but, if past history is any indication, we seem to have beeen able to achieve whatever we can imagine.
RockCabin-Mining
I see real promise in the more optimist views of researchers like Aubrey de Gray at the SENS Research Foundation that aging is "curable" and no more of an obstacle for science to cure than was Polio or an infectious disease. Using the same parallel as AIDS, that people die from becoming susceptible to things that shouldn't kill you, they've found ways that should stop the clock and you stay healthy. And they're close to finding a way for our rejuvenation to the appearance of being in your 30's is possible through gene therapies. Of course it will come in stages and the trick is to hang in there and live long enough to benefit from each stage of the process if you want go on living to be 150, 200 or 500 years old.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Ironically, Albert Einstein showed that you can live longer just by going faster. You won't exist for a longer time but you will be able to experience a later time.
Timelord
What about artificial enhancements? For instance, I'm sure a major cause of death in old age is cardiac arrest. If they can perfect artificial hearts, then the old could conceivably live much longer. Guess I'll just have to join Walt Disney in the deep freeze until they've licked this pesky "death" problem.
Imran Sheikh
living too long doesn't makes any sense Living better and Helping Others Does.
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