Why aren't the oldest living people getting any older?

What's to come?
July 19 2011 6:56 AM

The World's Deadliest Distinction

Why aren't the oldest living people getting any older?

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This article arises from Future Tense,a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate.

Elderly man. Click image to expand.
Will we ever live to 150?

Last month, a 114-year-old former schoolteacher from Georgia named Besse Cooper became the world's oldest living person. Her predecessor, Brazil's Maria Gomes Valentim, was 114 when she died. So was the oldest living person before her, and the one before her. In fact, eight of the last nine "world's oldest" titleholders were 114 when they achieved the distinction.   Here's the morbid part: All but two were still 114 when they passed it on. Those two? They died at 115.

The celebration surrounding Cooper when she assumed the title, then, might as well have been accompanied by condolences. If historical trends hold, she will likely be dead within a year.

It's no surprise that it's hard to stay the "world's oldest" for very long. These people are, after all, really old. What's surprising is just how consistent the numbers have been. Just seven people whose ages could be fully verified by the Gerontology Research Group have ever made it past 115. Only two of those seven lived to see the 21st century. The longest-living person ever, a French woman named Jeanne Calment, died at age 122 in August 1997; no one since 2000 has come within five years of matching her longevity.

The inventor Ray Kurzweil, famous for bold predictions that occasionally come true, estimated in 2005 that, within 20 years, advances in medical technology would enable humans to extend their lifespans indefinitely. With six years gone and 14 to go, his prophecy doesn't seem that much closer to coming true. What happened to modern medicine giving us longer lives? Why aren't we getting any older?

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

We are living longer—at least, some of us are. Life expectancies in most countries not ravaged by AIDS have been rising gradually for decades, and the average American today can expect to live 79 years—four years longer than the average in 1990. In many developed countries, the superold are among the fastest-growing demographics. (There is evidence that this progress may be grinding to a halt among some demographics, however.) But raising the upper bounds of the human lifespan is turning out to be trickier than increasing the average person's life expectancy. This may be a case where, as with flying cars, a popular vision of technological progress runs afoul of reality's constraints. 

In the past few years, the global count of supercentenarians—people 110 and older—has leveled off at about 80. And the maximum age hasn't budged. Robert Young, senior gerontology consultant for the Guinness Book of World Records, says, "The more people are turning 110, the more people are dying at 110."

Young calls this the "rectangularization of the mortality curve." To illustrate it, he points to Japan, which in 1990 had 3,000 people aged 100 and over, with the oldest being 114. Twenty years later, Japan has an estimated 44,000 people over the age of 100—and the oldest is still 114.   For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Young says, the odds of a person dying in any given year between the ages of 110 and 113 appear to be about one in two. But by age 114, the chances jump to more like two in three.

It's still possible that the barrier will eventually go the way of the four-minute mile. Steve Austad, a former lion tamer who is now a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center, argues the apparent spike in mortality at age 114 is merely a statistical artifact. Today's oldest humans, he's reminds us, grew up without the benefit of 20th-century advances in nutrition and medicine. In 2000, he bet fellow gerontologist S. Jay Olshansky $500 million that someone born that year, somewhere in the world, would live to be 150. Olshansky, an Illinois at Chicago professor who wrote about the paradox of longevity for Slate last fall, doesn't expect to be  around in 2150 to collect his winnings. Even a cure for cancer or heart disease would do little to extend the maximum length of human life, he argues, because there are simply too many risk factors that pile up by the time a person is 115 years old. He believes supercentenarians owe their longevity more to freakish genes than perfect health; the 122-year-old Calment smoked cigarettes for 96 years. Olshansky and Austad agree on one point: A technological breakthrough, perhaps in the realm of genetics, that slows the aging process could send life spans surging upward.

Is such a discovery imminent? At this point, the question is little more than a Rorschach. Young, the Guinness World Records consultant, compares the quest for superlongevity to the efforts of alchemists in the Middle Ages to turn lead into gold. They were right to think it was possible, but wrong to imagine they had any idea where to begin: Scientists finally succeeded in transmuting elements in the 20th century only after first unlocking nuclear physics. By that time, alchemy was largely irrelevant; the real trick was splitting uranium atoms.

The same may be true of enabling humans to live to 150. Age, it's worth remembering, is more than just a number. Young, who has spent time with dozens of supercentenarians, says even the hardiest humans turn frail by 110. As for Besse Cooper, the new world titleholder, Young reports that she can still talk, though her eyesight is failing. "As a quality-of-life issue, I think she could handle another year. I've seen some that, bless their hearts, probably shouldn't be here anymore."

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