EDITORIAL

Maximum Human Lifespan
May Be Increasing

t has long been accepted that the maximum human lifespan of 120 years has remained constant since the time when human beings first began to record their ages thousands of years ago. If this barrier has indeed been written into the human genome, it is not to be surpassed, except perhaps by changing the genome—as is the expressed desire of many genetic engineers in that burgeoning field. With the dawning of the age of gene modification—not to mention stem cell technology and nanotechnology—this may well be achievable.

But what about that fabled 120-year figure? Has it really been the maximum throughout history? Demographic researchers Drs. Jean-Marie Robine and James W. Vaupel have taken issue with that idea.1 They claim that, until recently, there has never been any reliable validation to claims that anyone ever lived longer than 112 years. This does not necessarily mean, of course, that all such claims were false, but only that no one can prove they were true.

Then, between the years 1980 and 2000, for no clearly apparent reason, the maximum reported (and reliably validated) age of death increased by about 10 years, from 112 to 122 (the gold-standard lifespan of Mme. Jeanne Calment, with numerous others in between). Bear in mind that the maximum reported age of death of any one individual, anywhere, defines the maximum lifespan of the entire human species.

What Is the Future of Human Longevity?

In testimony given before the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging (June 3, 2003), Dr. Vaupel stated that the evidence suggests that average human life expectancy is not approaching its limit.2 For example, over the last 160 years in Japan, the average life expectancy for women has advanced at a steady pace, by 3 months per year. As of 2007, the life expectancy of Japanese women is 86, and there is no evidence of any slowing.

What is the reason for this phenomenon? In the early part of the 20th century, in the developed world, the increase was driven by progress in reducing infant, childhood, and early-adult mortality. But by 1950, and especially since 1970, according to Vaupel, the continued rise in average life expectancy has been fueled by substantial declines in death rates at older ages. And this, in turn, is the result of progress in extending the healthy, active period of life, brought about by the prosperity created by market economies and technological innovation based on scientific research.

That is worth repeating: The reason for the advancing human lifespan is market-based prosperity and innovative research. Among the major bearers of biomedical innovation and advancement in the future will be the field of genomics, the study of an organism’s entire genome. Having been introduced in the 1970s, taken off in the 1980s, and become white hot with the decoding of the human genome in 2003, pure genomics has spawned the field of functional genomics, concerned principally with patterns of gene expression and their manipulation with regard to various human conditions.

This cannot, obviously, be the reason for Robine and Vaupel’s reported increase in maximum human lifespan, but it could provide the impetus for even greater increases in the not-too-distant future. Let us hope so!

References

  1. Robine JM, Vaupel JW. Emergence of supercentenarians in low mortality countries. North Am Actu J 2002;3:54-63.
  2. Vaupel JW. The future of human longevity—how important are markets and innovation? Sci Aging Knowledge Environ 2003 Jul 2;2003(26):PE18.

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