upper limit to human lifespan

These researchers argue there is no upper limit to our lifespan

Summary: Several researchers say there is not an upper limit to human lifespan, contradicting studies which point to a maximum human lifespan. However, a new report from the CDC suggests that both sides of the debate may be missing the point. [This article first appeared on LongevityFacts. Author: Brady Hartman. ]

While many studies have set an upper limit on human lifespan at around 115 to 120 years, other researchers argue that there is no upper limit. This article presents both sides of the debate over the existence of a maximum human lifespan.

Upper Limit to Human Lifespan

The trouble started last year when several new studies announced that human lifespan is limited to about 115 – 120 years.

The first study that suggested the existence of a maximum human lifespan was announced in August of last year. The study was conducted by a group of Dutch researchers who pegged the upper limit of human lifespan at around 115 years.  This report was closely followed by a research study from a team of French researchers from the Paris Descartes University. Moreover, another report by two researchers from the University of Southern California concluded that conventional medicine had produced no gains in our maximum lifespan in nearly four decades, however, suggest that one day the rate of aging might be controlled with advanced geroscience technologies.

Dutch Study on Maximum Human Lifespan

The Dutch announced they had discovered a limit to human lifespan using data mining techniques. The statistician-researchers, based at Tilburg and Rotterdam’s Erasmus universities, mined data from approximately 75,000 Dutch people, examining records spanning the last three decades. The authors of the study pegged the maximum ceiling for men at 114.1 years and women at 115.7 years.

French Study Suggests an Upper Limit to Human Lifespan

A group of researchers from the Paris Descartes University announced that humanity had reached their limits in lifespan, athletic potential, and height. The team, led by Jean-François Toussaint and Adrien Marck published their findings in October 2017 in the journal Frontiers in Physiology. The French study covered more than 120 years worth of historical information.

The French researchers blame our genetic makeup and an increasingly toxic planet, among other things, for setting limits on our lifespan.

To back their argument, Toussaint, Marck, and colleagues pointed to the constraints of the Hayflick Limit, saying  “Cells have a limited replicative potential depending on their type. “ The duo pointed out that progressive telomere shortening that leads to cell death and cellular senescence.

Moreover, the French researchers say that technological progress has brought us longevity gains at the cost of an increasingly toxic planet. Resource depletion, global warming, and increasing pollution place a limit on maximum human lifespan, the authors say.

Finch and Schneider Find Upper Limit to Human Lifespan

In an article published last year, two authors from USC concluded that conventional medicine had produced no gains in our maximum lifespan in the previous four decades, however, suggest that the rate of aging might one day be controlled with advanced geroscience technologies in the pipeline.

Edward L. Schneider, MD and Caleb E. Finch, Ph.D.  from the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles suggest that the upper limit to human lifespan is around 120 years. The USC authors add that while previous medical advancements will help us live longer, the trend shows they have not helped us live much beyond this upper limit.

To arrive at their conclusions, the authors examine lifespan changes in historical databases. Finch and Schneider noted that average human lifespan has more than doubled in the previous 200 years. However, maximum human lifespan has not increased in nearly four decades, saying there has been

“little to no change in the maximum lifespan since 1980.”

The USC researchers published their findings in the article titled “The Future of Old Age,” an essay in the Brocklehurst textbook. Edward L. Schneider, MD is a Professor of Medicine, Professor of Biological Sciences, and Professor of Gerontology at the USC Keck School of Medicine. His coauthor Caleb E. Finch, Ph.D., is a professor at USC’s Davis School of Gerontology.

The USC authors say that improvements in medical care increased the average but not the maximum human lifespan. The scientists say that the steepening of the mortality curves indicate the presence of an upper limit, noting

“From these data on mortality rates, it can be calculated that the maximum human lifespans are 120 for women and 113 for men, which are very close to the reported records. “

Finch and Schneider discovered a new trend that began in the 1950s, in which humanity has enjoyed reduced rates of mortality at advanced ages and a rectangularization of the survival curve, which points to longer average lifespans, but not longer maximum human lifespans.

The authors used historical data from Sweden that records births and deaths dating back to 1800. Finch and Schneider noticed that after the age of 40, Swedish adults in Sweden show accelerating mortality rates, which they say are a “basic manifestation of aging,” that demonstrate the existence of underlying biological processes that cause aging.

Finch and Schneider on Slowing Aging

Unlike the French and Dutch teams, Finch and Schneider are optimistic that aging can be slowed, saying

“Laboratory models have amply documented that every aspect of aging can be manipulated, from DNA damage to cross-linking of connective tissue collagen and elastin to ovarian egg cell loss to arterial lipids to brain amyloid levels. In addition to food intake and exercise, aging processes can be manipulated by regulating gene activity without changing DNA sequence.”

No Upper Limit to Human Lifespan

In an interview last year with The Guardian,  professor Jim Vaupel, an aging scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany said

“The evidence points towards no looming limit. At present, the balance of the evidence suggests that if there is a limit it is above 120, perhaps much above – and perhaps there is not a limit at all,”

Moreover, a group of three researchers  – Gavrilov, Krut’ko, and Gavrilova – affiliated with NORC at the University of Chicago and the Russian Academy of Sciences Federal Research Center – argue that there is no upper limit to human lifespans. In a study published last year in the journal Gerontology, the authors argue

“Recent scientific publications suggest that human longevity records stopped increasing. Our finding that the mortality of centenarians has not decreased noticeably in recent decades (despite a significant mortality decline in younger age groups) is consistent with this suggestion. However, there is no convincing evidence that we have reached the limit of human life span. The future of human longevity is not fixed and will depend on human efforts to extend life span.”

New Study from the CDC

Whether there is an upper limit to human lifespans is not the critical question. While reaching 120 is possible, it is exceedingly rare. A better goal would be to boost the odds of the average person achieving this target.

Unfortunately, we are headed in the wrong direction, at least in the US. According to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), published on December 21st, 2017; life expectancy in the US fell in 2016, for the second year in a row. On average, an American baby born in 2016 can expect to live 78.6 years, down from 78.9 in 2014. In a recent article, the magazine The Economist attributes this alarming trend to the growing opioid epidemic and reports that overdoses claimed more than 63,000 lives in 2016. The CDC adds that the two leading causes of death in 2016 remained heart disease and cancer. However, the category labeled “unintentional injuries,” which includes drug overdoses, climbed to 3rd place in 2016.

Healthspan is the Target of Geroscience

Even though medical science has managed to extend our lifespans, we spend a significant portion of our lives suffering from the chronic diseases of aging. That is why lifespan-extension researchers called geroscientists are shifting their focus from extending lifespans to extending our healthspans – a term which describes the length of time we live relatively free from chronic disease. To accomplish this, geroscientists are targeting the biological mechanisms that underly the aging process, as it is the cause of most chronic conditions.

Bottom Line on Limits to Human Lifespan

The three studies say that despite the advances in medical care, the upper limit to human lifespan is around 120 years. Other scientists, such as Vaupel, Gavrilov, Krut’ko, and Gavrilova, disagree.

The good news that medical advances have increased our average lifespan.  Conventional medical science has reduced the impact of some of the chronic diseases of aging, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. However, it appears that so far, these advances have not increased the maximum human lifespan in the past three or four decades. Instead, these medical advances delayed the onset of these diseases, pushing them into the last years of our lives, a welcome development, none the less.

Overcoming the maximum human lifespan of around 120 years will be a tall order for longevity scientists, but appears doable with a compound that truly delays the underlying aging process.  Of course, to live long, it helps to also have a healthy diet and breathe pollution-free air.

Longevity scientists aren’t particularly interested in increasing maximum human lifespan as much as they are interested in improving human healthspan. This should help raise the odds of us reaching our 120th birthday. According to theory, the reduction in the chronic diseases of aging should be accompanied by an increase in average lifespan.

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Cover photo credit: Ivana Starcevic / Getty Images (iStock).

Gavrilov LA, Krut’ko VN, Gavrilova NS, The Future of Human Longevity. Gerontology 2017; 63:524-526. Link to the Gerontology article.

Marck Adrien, Antero Juliana, Berthelot Geoffroy, Saulière Guillaume, Jancovici Jean-Marc, Masson-Delmotte Valérie, Boeuf Gilles, Spedding Michael, Le Bourg Éric, Toussaint Jean-François. “Are We Reaching the Limits of Homo sapiens?” Frontiers in Physiology, Vol 8, 2017, p812. DOI: 10.3389/fphys.2017.00812. Link to journal article.

AFP press release. “Dutch scientists say human lifespan has limits.” via MedicalXpress.com, August 31, 2017. © 2017 AFP. Link to press release.

Finch CE, Schneider EL, “The Future of Old Age.” Copyright © 2017 by Elsevier, Inc. ISBN: 978-0-7020-6185-1


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