Humans May Not Be Able to Live Past 125

By Nathaniel Scharping | October 5, 2016 12:24 pm
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(Credit: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock)

After decades of increasing human lifespans, the limits of longevity may have been reached.

Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine published a paper Wednesday in Nature gathering demographic data on the human lifespan from around the world to see whether humans will continue to live longer lives. They concluded that, while we have made significant strides in pushing the boundaries of mortality ever upward, biological realities that limit human longevity. Based on the data, the researchers estimate that the maximum lifespan for humans is 125 years.

Trends Reaching a Plateau

Ever since the dawn of the 20th century, when the researchers’ data set begins, humans have been living longer. Improvements in healthcare, technology, infant mortality and environmental safety have added years to lifespans by controlling for factors like disease and disaster. These trends are reflected by a steady increase in both the average lifespan and the maximum reported age at death.

But as the 1900s came to a close, both of these trends began to slow down. The oldest known person, Jeanne Calment, died in 1997 at the age of 122. Since then, no one has come within five years of her. Similarly, average life expectancy seems to be plateauing at around 85.

The researchers also looked at another telling statistic on the age group that has experienced the most rapid gains in life expectancy over the years. For decades, life expectancy for people in their 80s and 90s has pushed upward, but has now reached a stalling point at about 100. This means that we got better at helping octo- and nonagenarians live a little longer, but when it came to people past the century mark, we have so far been unable to aid them. By carrying forward the current rates of change in how long we live, the researchers estimate that we are close to reaching a stalling point in terms of life expectancy.

Not Evolved for Longevity

The reason for this may be quite simple: evolution does not favor the individual. There is no immediate advantage to a species if its members extend their lives significantly beyond the period when they can reproduce. Simply put, our bodies aren’t made to live longer than about 125 years. There is no self-destruct button in our bodies, the researchers say, but the limit likely stems from the inevitable wear that biological processes exert on our bodies.

Our cells are in a constant cycle of death and regeneration. When cells die after a few days or weeks, they get replaced by fresh cells. But the blueprint responsible for creating new life within our bodies, our DNA, is far from immortal. Over time, mutations slip in, gradually weakening the integrity of the code. Our telomeres, the sturdy caps that protect the ends of our chromosomes like aglets on shoelaces, shorten and leave chromosomes behind them vulnerable. The result is wrinkling skin, weakening bones and failing organs — or getting old.

The researchers’ data highlights an issue that has been brewing for some time in the field of medicine. We have gotten good at treating diseases caused by bacteria, viruses and genetic aberrations, but the process of aging is much different. Only in the past few decades have we begun to make progress in understanding what causes aging. Researchers uncovered the connection between telomeres and aging in the early 1990s, and ongoing research is focusing on other processes in our genome like methylation, which controls how chemical groups are added to human DNA.

Improvements in this area of research could conceivably extend lifespans beyond 125 years. But to do so would entail a shift in focus from treating mostly external problems that afflict us throughout our lives to tinkering with the fundamental processes that sustain us — and also gradually kill us.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: aging, genes & health
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  • kieron George

    Isn’t it more likely the reason 100+ year olds haven’t seen life expentancy gains is because there’s not enough of them?

    Niche medical markets rarely see much investment and research.

  • Chris Fotis

    Let’s assume medicine can prolong life until 125: will that mean a type of slow agonising death? The short of it is that the short of it is not a bad thing. Drawing matters out will increase human misery, not reduce it.

  • OWilson

    Genetic improvement can be quite dramatic.

    The 100+ year olds they are looking at now obviously were born as early as the 1890s, and neither they, nor their parents, had the benefits of the nutrition and medicine routinely available today.

    I taught summer school English in post communist Eastern Europe for 4 years, and on “Parent’s Day”, the students would bring their parents to meet the teachers.

    We had these tall, straight, beautiful tennis player type teenagers, introducing their tiny babushka growth stunted mothers, who had managed to survive the depredations of war and post war communism.

    It is obvious that this new generation will far outlive their parents.

    Add artificial joints, organs, transplants,or maybe frog DNA which will regrow an entire leg in a couple months, and you will have an unsustainable drain on your Obamacare, Social Security, Medicare, so that not only will selective abortion be government mandated, but so will government mandated euthanasia.

    The brave new world is on the horizon.

    And done all in the name of rationing limited resources and “Saving The Planet”!

    The U.N. are already salivating at the thought! :)

  • Apollo Grace

    A brief and accurate summary of “What Is” – but for a much more interesting take on “what could be”, please consider the work of SENS, the Society for Engineered Negligible Senescence. All the things that kill us at 125 or sooner, the things that make 80-100 years more susceptible to cancer, diabetes, heart disease or other painful and extended forms of death, have basic causes in cellular metabolism and build-up of toxins. These root causes can be addressed, but haven’t been in an effective way yet. This is Discover! Let’s talk about the possibilities, not throw our hands up at current apparent limitations.

  • Yūgen

    Wasn’t there a man discovered in indonesia recently who was 145 yrs old according to his documents?

  • Joseph Kim

    Genesis 6:3 And the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.”

    • kurtdriver

      Read after that and you’ll see that those guys were all beggetting well after 120 years.

  • Overburdened_Planet

    If quality of life suffers more as we age, why would we want to live that long?

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