Big, rapid gains made in human lifespan: study

by Randy Dotinga, Healthday Reporter
Big, rapid gains made in human lifespan: study
Researchers say 72 is the new 30.

(HealthDay)—It's said that life is short. But people living in developed countries typically survive more than twice as long as their hunter-gatherer ancestors did, making 72 the new 30, according to new research.

Most of the decline in early mortality has occurred in the past century, or four generations, a finding that calls into question traditional theories about aging, the study authors noted.

"I still can't believe how recent most of the progress is," said Oskar Burger, lead author of a study published online Oct. 15 in .

But there's a larger message from the research: Our estimates about the limits of human lifespans may be too low.

The study findings "make it seem unlikely that there is a looming wall of death ... which kills off individuals at a certain age" because of genetic mutations that build up as we age, said Burger, a postdoctoral fellow at Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany.

The study authors analyzed the in the western world today and those of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. "We show that human mortality has decreased so substantially that the difference between hunter-gatherers and today's lowest-mortality populations is greater than the difference between hunter-gatherers and wild chimpanzees," the researchers wrote.

For example, hunter-gatherer humans were about 100 times more likely to die before age 15 than today's residents of Japan and Sweden. And the study says were as likely to die at age 30 as Japanese people are at age 72.

But the human lifespan didn't grow gradually over thousands of years. The big jump occurred after 1900 in what the study authors call a "rapid revolutionary leap."

What accounted for the decrease in mortality rates over the past century? "Certainly clean water, better shelter, food and medicine all make a difference," Burger said. But it's difficult to figure out which had the most effect and when.

However, many parts of the world haven't benefitted from the big growth in lifespan, he noted.

In the big picture, the research challenges the idea that over a lifetime prevent humans from living very long, Burger said.

"Without changing our genetic code at all, we have all of this improvement in mortality at these ages where these mutations should kill us off," Burger said. "And we got all this improvement without 'fixing' any of these mutations that are predicted to cause our bodies to break down in various ways."

Other experts aren't so sure.

Ronald Lee, director of the Center on Economics and Demography of Aging at the University of California, Berkeley, said he's not convinced that the findings challenge current scientific viewpoints about lifespan. Instead, modern lower mortality rates don't "seem inconsistent with the theories, given the great improvements in medicine, water quality, sewage disposal, nutrition, control of violence and accidents," Lee said.

It's still the case, though, that "we still do not know the limits, if any, to the improvements in human longevity that have been occurring rapidly and steadily over the past two centuries," he said.

More information: Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the latest mortality statistics.

"Human mortality improvement in evolutionary context," by Oskar Burger, Annette Baudisch, and James W. Vaupel, PNAS, 2012.

Related Stories

Study: Men shed light on the mystery of human longevity

Sep 12, 2007

It turns out that older men chasing younger women contributes to human longevity and the survival of the species, according to new findings by researchers at Stanford and the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Recommended for you

Leeches help save woman's ear after pit bull mauling

Apr 18, 2014

(HealthDay)—A pit bull attack in July 2013 left a 19-year-old woman with her left ear ripped from her head, leaving an open wound. After preserving the ear, the surgical team started with a reconnection ...

New pain relief targets discovered

Apr 17, 2014

Scientists have identified new pain relief targets that could be used to provide relief from chemotherapy-induced pain. BBSRC-funded researchers at King's College London made the discovery when researching ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

badbooks
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2012
I would like to see a real study done that takes into consideration all of the recent breakthroughs, many written about in these pages.

Cancer and AIDs will be cured in our lifetime. Gene sequencing can already detect when and why people will get sick. Stem cells can grow a new liver. We know why people age and are figuring out ways to keep cells producing. We have replaced entire body parts with brain controlled robots. We have nano particles that can deliver medication to the sources of illness. At some point we will be able to download the contents of our mind to become robots.

Most of this has happened in 10 years. It's hard to imagine in 40 more, with the current exponential pace of advancements, people will live as long as they did a generation ago.
BloodSpill
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2012
Well, I've been reading articles here for a while now.
I'm getting the sense that it's not genetic mutations that kills us at all*; it's epigenetic changes that occur naturally with age.

Fortunately, we're at least at the point where we understand how much we need to learn about epigenetics.

For example: This article on the epigenome of people of different ages shows us that as we age, epigenetic flags change.
http://medicalxpr...ans.html
Improved diet probably prevents a lot of bad epigenetic changes from happening until later.

*new mutations accumulated over a lifetime
Sinister1811
4 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2012
Cancer and AIDs will be cured in our lifetime. Gene sequencing can already detect when and why people will get sick. Stem cells can grow a new liver. We know why people age and are figuring out ways to keep cells producing. We have replaced entire body parts with brain controlled robots. We have nano particles that can deliver medication to the sources of illness. At some point we will be able to download the contents of our mind to become robots.


Sounds too good to be true. They also said that we'd be driving flying cars to work by the year 2000. It hasn't happened. Some of those things you described are hindered by costs, availability, failed clinical trials, ethical issues, further technological advances etc.
Smellyhat
5 / 5 (1) Oct 16, 2012
But people living in developed countries typically survive more than twice as long as their hunter-gatherer ancestors did, making 72 the new 30, according to new research.


Okay, people who do science writing for a living should not be making this sort of mistake.
DarkHorse66
5 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2012
People also used to die from what we tend to consider minor, easily curable infections. DH66
tadchem
5 / 5 (3) Oct 16, 2012
People live longer simply because those things that can cause or contribute significantly to premature death - starvation, war, accidents, infections, diseases that compromise health - have been brought under closer control. Eradication of mosquito-borne infections in certain 'developed' regions has led to longer lives for uncountable millions.
El_Nose
5 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2012
the fact you no longer had to drink wine mixed with water to hydrate and not get dysentery... then again there are whole sections of india that have never had a solid bowel movement.
Donutz
5 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2012
In Ireland even as late as the early 20th century, a child had a 50% chance of dying in the first 3 months of life. People would have 8 children and maybe 2 or 3 would reach adulthood. Nowadays if an infant dies of anything other than something really obvious, there's an investigation.
Moebius
5 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2012
Longer survival isn't a gain in human lifespan, they are just surviving things that would have killed them prematurely in less developed countries. If we were truly intelligent we would do what's necessary to increase our lifespan, not just our survivability.
PhotonX
5 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2012
Most of this has happened in 10 years. It's hard to imagine in 40 more, with the current exponential pace of advancements, people will live as long as they did a generation ago.
Ray Kurzweil, is that you?
.
On a more serious note, I just survived 10 hospital days for a chest infection that very likely would have killed me 100 years ago, so I'm glad that my genes picked this century to be expressed. (Even got to see men walk on the moon, too.)