The oldest human on record reached the age of 122. She was a French woman, named Jeanne Louise Calment, and in her lifetime of 1875 to 1997, she got to witness an unprecedented period of innovation and growth human history. In 1875, the invention of radio was still decades away. In 1997, 70 million people were on the internet. She got to see changes in technology usually reserved for time travelers in the movies.
If living to 122 sounds cool, a new study has some bad news: Your chances of getting there are very slim. In fact, the human race is not very likely to break that record, ever.
That’s because while the average lifespan is increasing across the globe, maximum life span is not, according to a new paper, which appears in the journal Nature on Thursday. It suggests Calment’s super old age was a bizarre outlier — and not a target others will surpass even under ideal conditions.
"Our data strongly suggest that the duration of life is limited," the authors, a trio of researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, write.
The researchers analyzed the Human Mortality Database, which contains hundreds of years of population and mortality data for 38 countries.
They saw that while the percentage of people living to 70 has risen greatly since the 1900s (due to increased survival in childhood and better health care), the same cannot be said of people living past 100.
There are some gains in longevity after age 100, but they are much more modest. And the gains drop to near zero approaching 110.
The researchers also analyzed data from US, UK, France, and Japan in the International Database on Longevity, which keeps track of "supercentenarians," people who live to 110 or longer. In that dataset, too, they found the maximum age of death across the countries plateaued in 1995, slightly before Calment died.
In all, they determined the probability that someone will reach age 125 in any given year "is less than 1 in 10,000." Or put another way: A 125-year-old human is a once-in-10,000-year occurrence.
But couldn’t medical advances help people longer than ever?
The authors suggest this: The upper limit to our longevity isn’t about our health, it’s about how we’re built.
Our bodies simply break down with time — our DNA accumulates damage, our organs don’t function as efficiently. At a certain point, even if people can make it to age 110, the system grows too flawed to function.
The authors propose this is a built-in "natural limit" to our longevity, an "inadvertent byproduct" of our biology. And to increase the natural limit we’d need to fundamentally alter our genetics.
The burgeoning field of regenerative medicine is working on exactly that, but so far it has little to show for life extension. Scientists have altered the DNA of worms, mice, and flies to increase lifespan. But human applications are a long way off. (And, as James Vaupel, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, argues to BBC News, previous assumed limits for human longevity have all been surpassed. It’s hard to say we’ll "never" surpass this one.)
At the Atlantic, Ed Yong makes the argument that even if we had eternal life, it would still be difficult to reach very old age. "Imagine that you have an animal that doesn’t age," he writes. "Despite its immortality, it can still starve, succumb to accidents, or fall to predators. Eventually, its luck always runs out. "
Calment, meanwhile, should rest easy in her grave that her record will be around for a long, long time.