Lifespan is increasing in people who live to 65

November 7, 2018 by Sofie Bates, Stanford University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Stanford biologist Shripad Tuljapurkar had assumed humans were approaching the limit to their longevity – that's what previous research had suggested – but what he observed in 50 years of lifespan data was more optimistic than he was.

Analyzing the average age of death in people who lived to be over age 65 in developed countries showed that human lifespans are increasing by approximately three years every generation and that this trend is likely to continue, at least for a while. The researchers published the results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The data shows that we can expect longer lives and there's no sign of a slowdown in this trend," said Tuljapurkar, professor of biology and Morrison Professor of Population Studies. "There's not a limit to life that we can see, so what we can say for sure is that it's not close enough that we can see the effect."

Living longer than our parents

Tuljapurkar and his colleagues wanted to answer two pressing questions: Is humanity approaching a limit to human lifespans? Are there factors that allow some people to live longer than others?

The researchers looked at birth and death data for people above age 65 from 1960-2010. They found that the average age of death in those who live to be older than 65 increased by three years in every 25-year period, which means that people can expect to live about six years longer than their grandparents, on average.

Furthermore, this trend continued at a relatively stable pace over the entire 50-year period and in all 20 countries that they analyzed. Factors like medical breakthroughs caused minor fluctuations in how quickly lifespans increased, but these variations averaged out over time.

The increase in during any given decade was very similar.

Getting rid of the fuzziness

Most longevity studies look at the outliers, the people who live longer than everyone else. The data get fuzzy, however, because so few people live that long. Instead, Tuljapurkar and his colleagues, including Sha Jiang, a visiting graduate student from China, looked only at people over age 65, an age range with a large number of individuals.

"Our method is novel because it allows us to get rid of the fuzziness," Tuljapurkar said. "Our focus is on the age range where we have an accurate idea of what's going on."

If we were about to hit a limit to human lifespans, the distribution of ages when people die should compress – like a rolling wave crashing into a wall – as they approach the limit. But the researchers didn't see that pattern in the data. The wave continued to move forward.

Definitely not yogurt

Tuljapurkar was surprised to see that the average age of death increased at a constant speed, but he was even more surprised that the shape of the distribution didn't change. He expected that certain endowments would allow some people to live longer than others.

"There used to be so many ads about how people could live longer by, say, eating yogurt," Tuljapurkar said. He wasn't convinced that yogurt was the key to a longer life, but he did suspect that factors like wealth could increase the likelihood that someone would live longer.

If this were true, the distribution of the data should widen as rich people live past the average age of death. But the shape of the data was consistent over the 50-year period they studied. There was no single factor that allowed some people to live longer than others – at least not one that was showing up after age 65. Tuljapurkar noted that by the time someone has reached 65, he has already overcome many of the factors that could shorten life, like violence or early disease.

"But as someone who would like to be a one-percenter but is not, I'm certainly very happy to know that my odds of getting to live longer are just as good as the millionaire down the street," said Tuljapurkar.

Explore further: U.S. suffers from lifespan inequality, says researcher

More information: Wenyun Zuo et al. Advancing front of old-age human survival, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1812337115

Related Stories

U.S. suffers from lifespan inequality, says researcher

July 29, 2014
The United States has done worse than other wealthy countries at improving health for working-age adults while it has performed about the same in reducing mortality at ages over 65, according to new Stanford research.

No detectable limit to how long people can live: study

June 28, 2017
Emma Morano passed away last April. At 117 years old, the Italian woman was the oldest known living human being.

Shifting focus from life extension to 'healthspan' extension

September 17, 2018
Clinicians, scientists and public health professionals should proudly "declare victory" in their efforts to extend the human lifespan to its very limits, according to University of Illinois at Chicago epidemiologist S. Jay ...

Hunter-gatherers live nearly as long as we do but with limited access to healthcare

October 31, 2018
Modern life has many benefits. Transport, comfy furniture, smartphones, TV, the internet, dentistry and advanced medicine would be at the top of most people's lists. Our bodies also show signs of responding positively to ...

Recommended for you

Emotional abuse may be linked with menopause misery

November 19, 2018
Smoking, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle have long been linked to heightened symptoms of menopause. Now, a study headed by UC San Francisco has identified another factor that may add to menopause torment: an emotionally ...

How AI could help veterinarians code their notes

November 19, 2018
A team led by scientists at the School of Medicine has developed an algorithm that can read the typed-out notes from veterinarians and predict specific diseases that the animal may have.

Bullying and violence at work increases the risk of cardiovascular disease

November 19, 2018
People who are bullied at work or experience violence at work are at higher risk of heart and brain blood vessel problems, including heart attacks and stroke, according to the largest prospective study to investigate the ...

A low-gluten, high-fiber diet may be healthier than gluten-free

November 16, 2018
When healthy people eat a low-gluten and fibre-rich diet compared with a high-gluten diet, they experience less intestinal discomfort including less bloating. Researchers at University of Copenhagen show that this is due ...

Youth dating violence shaped by parents' conflict-handling views, study finds

November 16, 2018
Parents who talk to their children about nonviolent ways of resolving conflict may reduce children's likelihood of physically or psychologically abusing their dating partners later—even when parents give contradictory messages ...

Why we shouldn't like coffee, but we do

November 15, 2018
Why do we like the bitter taste of coffee? Bitterness evolved as a natural warning system to protect the body from harmful substances. By evolutionary logic, we should want to spit it out.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dogbert
5 / 5 (2) Nov 07, 2018
Interesting.
Hope further research can identify why.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.