15 Oct 2016

Peak longevity? Live long, die old

From This Way Up, 12:40 pm on 15 October 2016

Humans have never been living for longer. Back in the 1870s you could expect to only just reach 50 here in New Zealand, whereas today the average man can expect to live until he's 80 and the average woman until she's 83.

Average lifespans are one thing, but at the extreme end of the spectrum could we already have reached peak human longevity?

Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer Photo: (Ben Stechschulte)

Based on statistical data, human longevity has stalled, according to a recent (and controversial) paper published in the journal Nature.

"It's the latest volley in a long-running debate among scientists about whether there's a natural barrier to the human life span" according to New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer.

Jeanne Calment aged 22 in 1897

Jeanne Calment aged 22 in 1897 Photo: Public Domain

On 4 August 1997, Jeanne Calment died in France at the ripe old age of 122. Nearly 20 years later she remains the oldest human who has ever lived.

The case of Jeanne Calment was the starting point for Jan Vijg and his colleagues at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who published the paper in Nature.


Their research suggests humans cannot live beyond 115 years, give or take a few outliers like Madame Calment.

"The shift toward growth in ever-older populations started slowing in the 1980s. About a decade ago, it stalled. This might have occurred, Dr Vijg and his colleagues said, because humans finally have hit an upper limit to their longevity" - Carl Zimmer.