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101 Facts About Ageing #50: There Is No Proof That Medicine Has Increased Maximum Human Lifespan

Posted on 16 November 2021

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As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an American sociologist, politician, and diplomat once said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”. And we wholeheartedly agree. A shared set of facts is the first step to building a better world with longevity for all. In that spirit, we are creating a series that covers 101 indisputable facts about ageing, health and longevity.

Over the past century, advances is medical technology have contributed to an approximate doubling of human life expectancy. Much of this increase has been due to reductions in infant mortality, but even when this is excluded from the equation, those who reach adulthood can now expect to live longer than their predecessors on average. But what about maximum life expectancy? The longest living person on record is Jeanne Calment, who lived to the age of 122. Would this have been possible without modern medicine, or merely less probable?

Due to the lack of reliable data, it’s difficult to say for certain, but we can at least say that there is no solid evidence to indicate that the maximum age to which a human can live has ever increased throughout history. For example, it is estimated that the ancient Greeks and Romans lived to an average age of just 35. Many wrongfully assume that this implies anything above 35 would be considered ‘old’, and that reaching an age of 100 would be unthinkable. Yet the roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder (who himself died at the age of 56 during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius) wrote in The Natural History of multiple individuals who lived to 100 and beyond, and living to one’s 70s probably wasn’t that rare, at least among the elite. One study of notable figures in the Oxford Classical Dictionary suggests that before 100BC, Greeks and Romans who did not die violently lived to a median age of 72. Looking at a time period a little closer to the present – the period between 1200 and 1745 – it is estimated that those who survived until the age of 21 could expect to live into their 60s.

Survival at a given age between years 1851 and 2011. As far as we can tell, the maximum age to which humans are living has not increased, even if the proportion of individuals reaching that age has.

While it is possible that maximum lifespan has been increased, there is no solid proof that this is the case – the number of people reaching these extreme ages is still too low, and the historical data is too unreliable to conclude that there has been a significant change. So far as we know, the Roman Empire could have had their own Jeanne Calment. With this being said, the probability of someone living to Jeanne Calment’s age is still much higher now than it was at any point in the past.

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