A Discussion of Natural Limits on Lifespan, for Some Definition of Natural

A recently published analysis of the nature of limits to human life span under our present rapidly changing circumstances is receiving a lot of press attention today. The press being the press, you might skip the popular science articles in favor of the paper. Since it is not open access, you'll have to obtain it from the usual unofficial sources. It is an interesting read, and serves as a reminder that the research community actually knows very little about the demographics of aging at very advanced age. The data is so sparse past age 110 that the statistics of mortality, very reliable in earlier old age, rapidly turn into a sludge of uncertainty. It is possible at this point in time to argue either side of the position that there is or is not a limit to longevity under present circumstances, though most of us probably think that one or the other side is weak. On the one hand we can theorize that maximum human life span is increasing, in a way analogous to the fact that life expectancy at 60 is inching upward at a year every decade, but more slowly, and we might suggest the data for extreme old age is so bad that the ongoing change can't be identified. On the other hand we can instead theorize that there is some limiting process that hasn't changed at all over the course of recent human history, is not impacted meaningfully by modern medicine, plays a very large role in supercentenarians in comparison to younger old people, and renders mortality rates so very high at the extremes of human life spans as to form a limit.

This is actually a point worth making twice: when limits to lifespan are discussed, we're not talking about actual limits per se, but effective limits. A very large mortality rate, possibly coupled with rapid growth in mortality rate over time, looks a lot like a hard barrier to further progress in practice, but there is still the chance that someone could beat the odds. Where the data for supercentenarians is good enough to fill in tentative mortality rates with large error bars, up to age 115, that rate is around 50% annually. The mortality rate may increase greatly after that point, and that would be entirely expected given the absence of more than the one certified example making it past 120, but it is very unclear from the limited data. Mortality rates reflect actual physical processes, the accumulation of forms of cell and tissue damage that cause the suffering, death, and disease of old age. The damage is the same, but the proximate causes of death for supercentenarians are quite differently distributed from those of younger old people, prior to a century of age. The majority appear to be killed by transthyretin amyloidosis that clogs up the cardiovascular system, and that is becoming known to play a much lesser - but still significant role - in heart disease in earlier old age. Could this form of amyloidosis be the candidate for a process that is not all that affected by the past century of changes in medicine and lifestyle, and that becomes much more important in extreme old age than early old age? Possibly. The only way to know for sure is to build ways to clear this form of amyloid and see what happens.

The natural state of aging is a function of damage and how medicine addresses that damage - which is poorly and next to not at all at the present time. Almost all medicine for age-related conditions fails to address their root causes, the cell and tissue damage of aging, and takes the form of patching over that damage in some way or coaxing biological machinery to cope slightly better with running in a damaged environment. Predictably it is expensive and only marginally effective in comparison to true repair. As above in the comments on amyloidosis, find a way to repair that problem and life span will increase, as the machinery of biology will be less damaged and less worn down into high rates of failure. That is the point to take away from this discussion. It has to be said that the lead of the study, Jan Vijg, comes across as very pessimistic on aging in his comments here when considered in comparison to past remarks and collaborations with SENS folk that I've seen from him. That is the case even granting that he is in the camp of researchers who believe there is no alternative to a very slow and expensive reengineering of human metabolism in order make incremental gains in life span and slowing of the aging process.

What's the Longest Humans Can Live? 115 Years, New Study Says

On Aug. 4, 1997, Jeanne Calment passed away in a nursing home in France. The Reaper comes for us all, of course, but he was in no hurry for Mrs. Calment. She died at age 122, setting a record for human longevity. Jan Vijg doubts we will see the likes of her again. True, people have been living to greater ages over the past few decades. But now, he says, we have reached the upper limit of human longevity. "It seems highly likely we have reached our ceiling. From now on, this is it. Humans will never get older than 115." his is the latest volley in a long-running debate among scientists about whether there's a natural barrier to the human life span. "It all tells a very compelling story that there's some sort of limit," said S. Jay Olshansky, who has made a similar argument for over 25 years. James W. Vaupel has long rejected the suggestion that humans are approaching a life span limit. He called the new study a travesty. "It is disheartening how many times the same mistake can be made in science and published in respectable journals," he said. Dr. Vaupel bases his optimism on the trends in survival since 1900.

But when Dr. Vijg and his students looked closely at the data on survival and mortality,they saw something different. The scientists charted how many people of varying ages were alive in a given year. Then they compared the figures from year to year, in order to calculate how fast the population grew at each age. The fastest-growing portion of society has been old people, Dr. Vijg found. In France in the 1920s, for example, the fast-growing group of women was the 85-year-olds. As average life expectancy lengthened, this peak shifted as well. By the 1990s, the fast-growing group of Frenchwomen was the 102-year-olds. If that trend had continued, the fastest-growing group today might well be the 110-year-olds. Instead, the increases slowed down and appear to have stopped. When Dr. Vijg and his students looked at data from 40 countries, they found the same overall trend. 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.

Human lifespan may have maxed out

RG: Could you explain the research you did and the method you used in your analysis?

Vijg: We tested if human maximum life span is fixed or fluid and we found it to be fixed at around 115 years. We did this by looking at the maximum reported age at death in France, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. Firstly, we tested if improvement in survival also shifts to older age groups over time. We showed that improvement in survival in the oldest age group peaked in about 1980. This suggests - but does not prove - that we are reaching a maximum lifespan. Then we tested the maximum reported age at death since the 1960s. At first, this increased, but only up until the early 1990s. It then seemed to settle on a plateau, or even decline slowly, which is why we believe there is strong evidence that we have reached our ceiling.

RG: Why do you believe that humans have a natural age limit that is unlikely to be exceeded?

Vijg: Probably because the multiple longevity assurance systems humans have to prevent or fix damage and respond to stress are limited. This is also likely to be true for all animal species. A mouse lives much shorter than a human, possibly because it possesses inferior longevity assurance systems and can only get rid of damage and stress up until about three years.

Evidence for a limit to human lifespan

Driven by technological progress, human life expectancy has increased greatly since the nineteenth century. Demographic evidence has revealed an ongoing reduction in old-age mortality and a rise of the maximum age at death, which may gradually extend human longevity. Together with observations that lifespan in various animal species is flexible and can be increased by genetic or pharmaceutical intervention, these results have led to suggestions that longevity may not be subject to strict, species-specific genetic constraints. Here, by analysing global demographic data, we show that improvements in survival with age tend to decline after age 100, and that the age at death of the world's oldest person has not increased since the 1990s. Our results strongly suggest that the maximum lifespan of humans is fixed and subject to natural constraints.


Hmm, they said years ago that humans could never fly.
They said we could not break the sound barrier.
They said we could not decipher the genome on time.

They were wrong, wrong, wrong.

BTW, I wonder where our resident troll is now. I am sure she will pipe in anytime now.

Posted by: Robert at October 5th, 2016 7:42 PM

Hi there !

Very nice study.

But we should not take it as the be all end all on the MLSP (Maximum Lifespan) of humans.
MLSP is an erroneous anomaly itself, there is no such thing as a MLSP.
It is a coinage to gauge the 'max limit ''known''' of an individual in a species.
When a wild type nematode with a MLSP of 30-60 days can go all the way up to 250 days MLSP as a mutant, it tells you
all there is to know about MLSP. Idem, for a mouse (3 years) vs naked mole rat (30 years), or a mouse (3 years) vs queen ant (35 years)
It's bs even if these statistics studies show that no human lived above 122,
humans have like, AdG said, the power to live to 500-700 years, even 1000 years. It's up to us
to trick the system and rig it towards a looping repeated rejuvenation. Eternal trees live 5000 years,
bowhead whales live 211 years, many marine animals live from 150 to 500 years.
Ok, we are not marine animals, but the point is, aging is 'mutating' thing,
not 'fixed' and 'can be ''fixed''(repair and mop up the damages))'. Why supercentenarians die at around 120 is accumulation of junk (transthyretin) is not sustanaible anymore/exceeding
capacity to discharge/dilute the crap (failure of autophagy systems) as it accumulates
faster and faster; piling like a big junkyard full until you choke to death. Not only that,
this junk produces residual ROS and other damages which hamper the already 'aged' tissues
and harm the mitochondria day in day out. A vicious circle that leads to death (of age).

In the context of the study, if we age 'naturally' and get old normally, yes they are right
95% of the humanity will never reach 122 years old and that's a fact. But, that's where
science comes in, gives us a chance and might saves us. SENS is that future.
Because what else is there ? Not much else. Still, I believe epigenetic transcription
reprogramming and DNA methylation tinkering as something that could do wonders combined with SENS.
These are the two best ones, along with the Redox, but that has been pretty much abandoned in terms
of doing something about it.

Posted by: CANanonymity at October 5th, 2016 8:35 PM

There's a fundamental limit to how long someone can live with untreated aging, just as there's fundamental limits to how long people can live with any number of other untreated conditions, like a severed major artery. While a severed major artery will kill in minutes, with little prospect of living much longer than that, if the artery is unsevered, the person can live indefinitely. The limits to how long you can live without treating something says nothing about how long you can live if you undo that thing.

Posted by: Arcanyn at October 6th, 2016 3:12 AM

I also think it's not wrong per se to talk about a « limit to human lifespan », but what's wrong is not going beyond this vague term as opposed to specifying « limit to natural human lifespan » - or even better, « limit to natural human lifespan before life-extending interventions ».

That's the crux of the issue. If scientists and journalists speak about maximum lifespan and leave it at that, instead of informing the public about the ramp up in rejuvenation research which has occurred in recent years, then they are borderline lying.

Posted by: Spede at October 6th, 2016 3:21 AM

What's boggling is they needed research to come to the conclusion our lifespans will not grow unless we do something about it.

Geez. Nice use of funds.

Posted by: Anonymoose at October 6th, 2016 6:32 AM

The thing all the magazines who have run this fail to point out are these concluding remarks by the researchers:

"To further extend human lifespan beyond the limits set by these longevity-
assurancesystems would require interventions beyond improving health span,
some of which are currently under investigation15.
Although there is no scientific reason why such efforts could not be successful, the possibility
is essentially constrained by the myriad of genetic variants that collectively
determine species-specific lifespan."

So basically they are not saying we cannot live longer despite the NYT and Yahoo etc... ignoring that part.

Posted by: Steve Hill at October 6th, 2016 1:03 PM

What Robert said.
This is like someone in 1850 concluding that the fastest that man could travel a significant distance was limited to the 30 mph that a horse drawn carriage could move.

Posted by: JohnD at October 6th, 2016 5:58 PM

Researchers next paper to investigate that water is wet lol

Posted by: Steve h at October 7th, 2016 4:17 AM


Thanks for the link, the author of this link seems to have some common sense. I took a portion of it and is shown below. Yea, why would suggest that the way things are, that there is no possibility to change it, to provide options for us. They seem very naive to me.

History repeats itself

While the observation in itself is unsurprising, the study and the majority of coverage on the topic have extrapolated the data further - predicting that no-one will ever peak beyond this inexorable time barrier. This is deeply regrettable and repeats many similar historical opinions echoing across history. Many experts in the past have claimed that humans would never be able to fly, never reach the moon and never be able to feed a population of billions (we have the agricultural capacity to do so, whether or not it is distributed sufficiently). Obviously all were incorrect, and it is highly improbable that this issue will be any different.

Posted by: Robert at October 7th, 2016 6:27 PM

I know there are at least two diseases of aging that drastically shorten lifespan. Both are due to hereditary gene mutations. One is Progeria where the maximum age is around 16 years and the other ( I don't remember the name occurs in the 40-50's is also genetically caused. I wonder if in mice an analogous gene exists and whether we can create mice with this version of gene to see what happens to the lifespan. Ditto to the other variant.
If it drastically shortens the lifespan of mice, perhaps the normal human form of the genes, or even the gene variants ( if they exist) in very old people might also be tried in mice. Would it result in very very old mice that live much longer on average than the natural limit?

Posted by: Kenneth Wachtel at October 9th, 2016 6:08 PM

The last two editorials of Rejuvenation Research are dedicated to this, and there is a reply from Vijg et al.

Posted by: Antonio at October 29th, 2017 12:23 PM

My fault: there is an editorial, a reply to that editorial and a reply to that reply.

Posted by: Antonio at October 29th, 2017 12:27 PM

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