On Wednesday, new evidence was published in the journal Nature that suggests humans have reached a 115-year ceiling on formerly increasing lifespan. The evidence was published by aging expert Dr. Vijg from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, along with graduate students Xiao Dong and Brandon Milholland. Dr. Vijg’s arguments adds a new voice to an ongoing debate about whether or not there exists a natural ceiling to human lifespan.
While average lifespan has increased over the past decades, and certain individuals such as Jeanne Calment have reached record-breaking ages like 122 in her case, Dr. Vijg contends that we have now reached a ceiling in extending lifespan.
“It seems highly likely we have reached our ceiling. From now on, this is it. Humans will never get older than 115,” he says.
The report received a range of reactions from leading scientists engaged in the debate. While supporters of the idea of a lifespan ceiling showered the report with praise, others saw the study as part of a continued stream of misinformation. For example, James W. Vaupel, director of the Max-Planck Odense Center on the Biodemography of Aging, called Dr. Vijg’s study ‘a travesty’. Having long rejected the ‘lifespan ceiling’ assertion, Vaupel said “It is disheartening how many times the same mistake can be made in science and published in respectable journals.”
Vaupel and other opponents of the idea base their thinking on fairly consistent trends on survival and lifespan since 1900, at which point the average life expectancy was just 50 years. Today, average American lifespan is now 79, with places such as Japan pushing lifespan as high as 83.
Dr. Vijg and his colleagues, however, see another pattern in the data. They examined what the data had to say about how many people of a given age were alive in a given year. The fastest growing portions of society became older and older through most of the twentieth century. In 1920s France, the fastest growing female group was 85-year-olds. By the 1990s, it was 102-year-olds. That trend would have predicted that 110-year-olds would have become the fastest growing group today.
Examining data from over 40 countries, Vijg and his colleagues found that the trend of growth in increasingly older populations began to slow down in the 1980s. Finally, it stopped increasing entirely about a decade ago. His team argues this may have been the result of humans reaching a ceiling to longevity.
The team also examined data from Dr. Vaupel’s research, including reports on 534 people who lived to unusually old ages. By the 1990s, the oldest person who died each year had increased to 115 from 111 in the 1960s. After 90s, this trend stopped, with few living beyond 115, with the exception of rare outliers such as Jeanne Calment. Dr. Vijg argues that this ceiling on lifespan has always existed, but only now are advances in medicine and lifestyle allowing humans to reach this ceiling.
For his part, Dr. Vaupel points to data that shows the fasted growing populations are continuing to shift older in places like Japan. Vaupel criticized the statistical methods Vijg used to analyze the data.