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Living to 125 and beyond: Scientists dispute there's a limit to our lifespans

7/2/2017, 7:02 p.m.
Don't mess with our collective dreams of immortality. A flurry of new research vigorously opposes a study from last year ...
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— Don't mess with our collective dreams of immortality. A flurry of new research vigorously opposes a study from last year that dared to suggest there might be a ceiling to the human lifespan.

In one new paper, Dutch scientists predict that, by 2070, our lifespan may increase to 125 years while beyond that, the sky may be the limit. Their analysis was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The debate over his original paper, published last October in Nature and widely reported by CNN and other media outlets, took Jan Vijg, senior author, by surprise.

For a biologist, a natural limit to the lifespan "makes a lot of sense, so that's why I never imagined the paper would stir up so much comment," said Vijg, a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

New analysis

To prove a 125-year lifespan is possible, researchers from the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute team began their study by refuting the relationship between age and immortality posed by Benjamin Gompertz.

This 19th-century mathematician pored over mortality data and noticed that young people have a very low chance of dying. Yet, in middle age, the chance of dying increases and then rises again dramatically in old age.

This exponential increase in the rate of human mortality has long been accepted wisdom, yet the Dutch researchers decided to challenge it. Instead of basing their work on data derived from the general population, they used data from a group of people noted for their long lives -- Japanese women.

Using mathematical models, they claim mortality goes down in old age and projected an astounding new human lifespan -- 125 years -- will be achieved by 2070.

Along with this theory, an additional four separate papers poke holes in Vijg's work. A Canadian team of scientists claims Vijg's original paper is based on statistically "noisy" (or meaningless) data. Meanwhile, a research team from the University of Copenhagen argues that any inferences about lifespan potential are premature; a team from the Max Planck Institute claims there's simply no evidence of a "looming limit;" and a team from the University of Groningen offers four cohesive arguments contesting the conclusions drawn by Vijg's team.

What inspired this heated debate?

Record-breakers

In their paper, Vijg and his graduate students, Xiao Dong and Brandon Milholland, analyzed aging trends in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Japan.

Vijg explained that their analysis was based not on some mathematical model that projected future data, but on "actual data" of real human lives. They examined not one but two different data sets, and what they observed was that, despite life expectancy being dramatically higher than it was 100 years ago, the probability of anyone living for more than 125 years was unlikely.

"Initially, you see this increase every year and you see this oldest record holder until the 1990s, and then it stops," said Vijg. "Think about it, how strange it is."

The number of healthy centenarians increased dramatically every year. That being the case, Vijg theorized "the supply is certainly there" to create more record-breakers, every year, yet there were none.