Will we live to be 100? It’s not likely

CHICAGO – Regardless of how many lifestyle improvements we make, vitamins we ingest or hormones we inject, the chances of living to 100 years are still slim to none.

S. Jay Olshansky, professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, studies life expectancy. His recent work has found that while many people are living longer, the rise in life expectancy is slowing down.

Factor in death rates.

If age- and gender-specific trends in death rates observed from 1985 to 1995 continue, Olshansky says, life expectancy at birth for males and females combined would not reach 100 years until the 22nd century in France and Japan, and the 26th century in the United States.

Our personal hopes and fears about human longevity aside, projections of human-life expectancy are important to public policy.

In the United States, the Social Security Administration and Census Bureau make these projections that impact on the future solvency of national trust funds including Social Security and Medicare.

“Life expectancy is very difficult to increase once it approaches 80 years,” Olshansky said.

Why? “Because adding decades to the lives of people who have already lived for 70 years or more is far more difficult then adding decades to the lives of children who are dying of infectious diseases,” he explains.

We’ll still live longer.

Olshansky said people will continue to live longer and he expects to see a dramatic increase in the retirement-age population with the aging of the baby-boom generation.

The next quantum leap in life expectancy, however, can occur only if “biomedical researchers can discover how to modify the aging process and make such a discovery widely available to the entire population,” Olshansky and co-authors say in an article in the Feb. 23 Science.

Scientific debate.

In research published in Science in 1990, the authors demonstrated that as life expectancy at birth rises, it becomes less sensitive to changes in death rates. They concluded then that the practical upper limit to life expectancy is 85 years – 88 for women and 82 for men.

Since then, other scientists have declared that these estimates are too pessimistic and suggested, instead, that death rates would begin declining dramatically and that life expectancies approaching 100 years were plausible in the 21st century.

“A decade has passed since we made our forecasts,” Olshansky said, “so there is sufficient evidence now to determine whether the rise in life expectancy has accelerated as others had predicted, or decelerated as we had predicted.”

Move to France.

The authors estimate that life expectancy at birth for males and females combined would reach 85 years in 2033 in France, 2035 in Japan and 2182 in the United States.

The authors point out that the popular view that the United States fares better than the rest of the developed world when it comes to old-age mortality may no longer be true.

Recent evidence suggests that death rates for people 80 and older are increasing much slower in the United States than in other countries such as Japan and France. The authors say death rates among U.S. males 89 and older increased between 1985 and 1995.

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