In search of Methuselah: estimating the upper limits to human longevity

Science  02 Nov 1990:
Vol. 250, Issue 4981, pp. 634-640
DOI: 10.1126/science.2237414


Estimates of the upper limits to human longevity have important policy implications that directly affect forecasts of life expectancy, active life expectancy, population aging, and social and medical programs tied to the size and health status of the elderly population. In the past, investigators have based speculations about the upper limits of human longevity on observations of past trends in mortality. Here the estimate of the upper bound is based on hypothesized reductions in current mortality rates necessary to achieve a life expectancy at birth from 80 to 120 years and an expectation of life at age 50 from 30 to 70 years. With the use of conditional probabilities of death from complete life tables for the United States, reductions in mortality required to achieve extreme longevity (that is, 80 to 120 years) were compared with those resulting from hypothetical cures for all cardiovascular diseases, ischemic heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Results indicate that in order for life expectancy at birth to increase from present levels to what has been referred to as the average biological limit to life (age 85), mortality rates from all causes of death would need to decline at all ages by 55%, and at ages 50 and over by 60%. Given that hypothetical cures for major degenerative diseases would reduce overall mortality by 75%, it seems highly unlikely that life expectancy at birth will exceed the age of 85.

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