Average life expectancy increases

Life expectancy is increasing - this is how old we will be in the future

We humans are getting older and older. Thanks to technological innovations, a higher standard of living and medical advances, newborns are getting older than ever. But how long can this trend continue? Is there a limit beyond which natural mortality can no longer be postponed? If so, where is this and what happens to us when more and more people approach this theoretical maximum age?

Quo Vadis, life expectancy?

It has been proven that we are doing better and better thanks to scientific advances. Modern medicine has celebrated great victories in the last 100 years, such as the near eradication of polio or organ transplants that are becoming routine. All of these achievements have had a major impact on average life expectancy, especially in developed countries.

In addition, there are countless other reasons, such as social factors and a more balanced diet, that also affect mortality. As a result, the average life expectancy in Germany was around 52 years in 1910, over almost 75 years in the post-war period, up to the currently listed 83.3 years for girls and 78.5 years for boys born in 2019.

Since this is an average, it can mean that every second baby currently born can live to be over a hundred years old. The increase has become much slower in recent years - around 0.05 more years are added per year - but has remained constant so far.

Average living conditions and medicine continue to improve. Projections therefore predict that average life expectancy could be around 85 years by 2050.

How old can we actually get?

To answer this question, it is not enough to look at the calculated, statistical life expectancy. The spread of the actual age at death is not taken into account, which can mean that if the number remains the same, there can be very many or very few outliers, up or down.

To date, the oldest person in history is the French Jeanne Louise Calment. She was born in 1875 and reached the proud age of 122 years and 164 days. This means that their actual age is more than twice as high as the average life expectancy in the year of their birth.

Therefore the question arises, how old can people get at all. So far, despite further medical advances since 1997, no person has come close to Calment's record.

Therefore, researchers and scientists have been arguing since then about whether this outlier represents the actual biological age limit, or whether it would even be possible to get even older. Many believe that it is very unlikely that many people will ever reach 122 years of age.

If one looks at the development of life expectancy, however, one could get the feeling that there is a high probability that individual cases can get even older with an average life expectancy that is already this high. However, statisticians have repeatedly stated that even today it is extremely unlikely that 125 years would ever be reached.

But these are mathematical considerations of a biological problem. What - due to too many unknowns - can hardly be considered: The effects on our longevity that a whole life could have under the care of the most modern medicine.

People who were born in industrialized nations from the 1960s onwards grew up under very different conditions. It remains to be seen whether this will have long-term effects on health in old age and what these might look like, if they exist. In addition, in the future, previously unimaginable drugs or therapies could influence the aging process itself and, ideally, slow it down.

Individual doctors and scientists therefore believe that it is hardly possible to currently determine an upper limit and that this could even be significantly higher than 122 years. Evidence for this is, for example, the citizen data in Sweden, which has been kept since the 16th century. The maximum service life has been increasing steadily for 150 years.

This question was only discussed again in 2018, when a team of scientists published a study in “Science” magazine under the name “The plateau of human mortality” (Volume 360, Edition 6396, English source with abstract can be found here). The result: the mortality rate does not seem to increase further from the age of 105 and remains constant at a plateau of around 50 percent.

That could mean that it is still very unlikely that individual people could reach a much older age - but not impossible. But here too, critics doubt the validity of the study, among other things because it was carried out with just under one hundred test subjects.

Effects of old age on our bodies

Regardless of whether it is realistic that people could live to be over 120 years old in the future, it is an indisputable fact that the number of people over a hundred years is growing significantly.

This means that in a few years the proportion of very old people in our society will be far greater than before - an important factor in demographic change. Issues such as outpatient and inpatient care, labor and the pension system or accessibility must therefore be seriously discussed.

Because even if life expectancy increases, there are currently no antidotes to the effects of aging. The slow but steady breakdown of muscle mass, the so-called sarcopenia, already starts at around 50 years of age, so it also affects people who are subsequently getting much older.

The changes in the circulatory system are also of biological origin. The vessel walls lose flexibility, which worsens the blood flow and in the long term leads to damage to tissue and organs. Symptoms of fatigue in bones, joints or even the eyes are also unavoidable.

Modern medicine and rehabilitation therapies make it possible to lengthen people's performance and ability to work, but certain limits are set here due to the unstoppable, biological aging processes.

The number of older and therefore weaker people will continue to grow. So it is a great social challenge of our time to face these problems and to find solutions to them.


4th December 2019

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