Who wants to live forever?

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One day, when I was a teenager, my father, in his early forties then, read an obituary of one of his friends from high school. He saddened and with a sigh remarked that God had already started taking people from “his shelf”. I wasn’t even surprised because then a man dying in his forties was uncommon, but not unheard of. That was 20 years ago.

The point of this story is to show you how much has changed since then. Now, a man dying before his sixtieth birthday is an anomaly. On average we live longer and our life expectancy is continuously improving. But does it mean we could live forever? And who would want to?

Apparently mankind had been fascinated with old age long before any scientific attempts to describe the problem were even possible. The first source of longevity fantasies is religion. Demi-gods, prophets, wizards and heroes reaching sometimes hundreds of years are common in mythology across every culture. Some Sumerian kings were believed to have reigned for up to 36 000 years. Legendary Chinese wizards lived for several hundred years and many of the classical heroes were simply immortal.

Same motives can be found in our own culture as well. The oldest person in the Old Testament was Methuselah with a whopper age of 969 and he was only one amongst many antediluvian figures, with Jared (962) not far behind and Adam, Moses and Job also following. In Qur’an (which is much more conservative in this matter), only Noah is mentioned to “be with his people” for 950 years. Some interpreters of the holy texts claim that it is a mere fault in translation mistaking the lunar cycles for solar ones (i.e. the aforementioned ages would be denoted in months rather than years). Assuming it might be indeed the case, Methuselah turns out to be a little under 81, Jared a bit over 80, and the rest in their late 70’s. Those old blokes will become handy in the latter part of this article.

Regardless of writers’ intentions, the stories of old men in the Bible have influenced the western civilisation’s view of longevity for over a millennium. All through the Dark and Middle Ages old age was considered to be a divine blessing and an average lifespan of the population, much shorter than that of the prophets, was seen as punishment for the humanity for all its sins. Hence, the myth of a purifying power of the Holy Grail, absolving all sins and thus granting eternal life. And speaking about Holy Grail it is hard not to mention the legend of Merlin Ambrosius an Arthurian wizard, who lived for at least half a millennium.

With the Renaissance came a more humanistic approach connecting old age with physicality and for the first time healthy living was put forth before spirituality, although what renaissance people considered healthy was not exactly the same concept as our own. Still, the budding science of medicine started an everlasting pursuit of panacea – the ultimate cure for all diseases – which was portrayed in the quest for the cleansing Fountain of Youth. In the XVIIth century, the quest for eternal life traversed even further into exact sciences’ territory, when it became the objective of alchemy. Of course, the Philosopher’s Stone was primarily sought after for its ability to transform lead into gold, thus giving its owner unlimited wealth, but the unlimited time to spend it in was a perk none the less.

The first scientific studies of longevity date back to the second half of XVIIIth century, when Bolle Willum Luxdorf started working on his Catalogus longævorum – Catalogue of the Long-living. Amongst many names and stories gathered in his work, two are worth mentioning. The first is that of Petran Czartan from Timisoara (Romania), the first holder of the “oldest person ever” title, who died in 1724, allegedly at the age of 185. His claim was based on his exact knowledge of historical events he had witnessed. His story is unverifiable, but remarkably, it is also very difficult to disprove. The second person of Luxdorf’s study worth mentioning is Katherin, countess of Desmond, who was the only one of the entire list to have nothing to do with her longevity claim and also the only one, whose story can be verified by official documents. Although she was definitely not 140 when she died in 1604 and her date of birth can not be pinned down, she was well over 90, which makes her one of the oldest women in the Renaissance (especially that women’s life expectancy was shorter than men’s until XIXth century – more on that later).

The following centuries were finally quite well documented, which allowed me to come up with the following table:

Table I: Life expectancy, life span and oldest people through history (from Renaissance on, UK data is used instead of world’s average)

Life expectancy

(at birth)

Life expectancy

(after reaching adulthood)

Oldest verified person of the period
Paleolithic Age (> 12 000 BC) 33 54
Mesolithic Age (12 000 – 7000 BC) 32
Neolithic Age (7 000 – 3 100 BC) 31.5 Otzi – 46-70
Bronze Age (3100 BC – 1 150 BC) 32-36 Ramesses II – 90
Iron Age (1150 – 650 BC) 35
Classical Age (650 – 350 BC) 40.5 Gorgias – 105
Hellenistic Age (350 – 50 BC) 40 Alexis – 100
Roman Age (50 BC – 476 AD) 36 47.5 Galeria Copiola – 105
Dark Ages (476 AD – 1046 AD) 34 Pepin II – 79
Middle Ages (1046 AD – 1348 AD) 35-42 64 Godric of Finchale – 105
Renaissance & Reformation (1348 – 1620 AD) 31-35 69 Laurence Chaderdon – 104
Enlightenment (1620 – 1780 AD) 35-40 71 Ferdinand Ashmall – 103
Industrial Age & Modern Era (1780 – 1918 AD) 40-54 68 Margaret Ann Neve – 110
Interwar period & WWII (1918-1945 AD) 54-64 71 Delina Filkins – 113
Atomic & Space Age (1945 – 1972 AD) 64-72 75 Mary Kelly – 113
Information Age (1972 – 2000 AD) 72-80 78 Jeanne Calment -122
XXI th century (2000 AD <) 81 82 Misao Okawa – 117

Let’s start with the basics and explain what life expectancy really is. In short, it is the average amount of time a person at a certain age is expected to live. Two main points of the previous sentence are “average” and “at a certain age”. The first one means that all possible illnesses, accidents, wars, murders, etc. are taken into account and the latter means that it can be calculated just as well for an infant as for a supercentenarian. Thus, what we normally refer to as “life expectancy”, is in fact “life expectancy at birth” and is the simplest way to statistically describe population’s age.

Having said that, it is crucial to remember to interpret the data correctly. Over the previous century this statistic for the world’s population than doubled from 31 in 1900 to 67.6 in 2010. In fact ever since the paleolithic age mankind’s life expectancy at birth has oscillated around 35 right until the Xth century, reached 40 by the XVIIth century and only exceeded 50 at the beginning of XXth century. Does this mean our life span miraculously increased over the last 100 years? Obviously not. So what happened?

The first thing to clear is why our life expectancy at birth wasn’t improving drastically before the XIXth century. Around 14 000 years ago mankind’s lifestyle changed dramatically from hunting/gathering to semi-settled farming. At first, low yielding crops were unable to fully replace the meat/fruit/nut diet with grains and vegetables, which resulted in a bigger mortality rate through malnutrition, partially offset by a lower number of cold-related deaths and hunting accidents, but overall causing the life expectancy to plunge from 33 to 32.

With agriculture and animal domestication, soon people settled completely and were able to gather in bigger societies. The more food they were able to produce, the bigger their villages became and so, without proper sewer systems, waste induced illnesses and local disease outbreaks replaced malnutrition as a primary cause of death and the average life span further decreased to our species’ lowest – 31.5.

From then on things seemed to be only getting better. Crops were plentiful and less weather dependant. Excess food allowed some people to make a living differently than by farming or hunting. So began a slow, but steady progress of technology, philosophy, arts and science. 2 500 years of relatively undisturbed growth followed, resulting in flourishing cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. Human life expectancy rose by one-third to 40.5 and the longest living humans were a half older than their predecessor from the neolithic age passing the 100 years barrier. One could truly say, the classical age was a golden one.

Unfortunately, it was not to last for a new peril overshadowed our civilisation. With new advances in technology, transport and engineering, war ceased to be a globally meaningless local conflict and became a factor influencing the lives of the whole mankind. Persian wars, Alexander the Great campaigns, Punic Wars and finally the Roman Conquest managed to outweigh the benefits of progress and brought life expectancy back towards decline. At first it was a slight drop to a round 40 years mark, but it was soon to be deepened.

By the Ist century, BC Rome was the decisive force of human civilisation, spreading over three continents and forcing its lifestyle on its citizens. What the Romans didn’t know, was that lead, which was then a material commonly used in plumbing and in kitchenware (plates, pots, cups, etc.), is toxic. Combined with neverending border wars and city expansion, it was a deadly mix bringing down our statistic back to 36 years. The empire finally collapsed leaving Europe in a state of constant power struggle for the second half of the first millennium. Without further advances in medicine and constant political chaos, the population’s average lifespan diminished by another 2 years.

At the brink of a new millennium, things started looking up again. Papacy reinstituted the Holy Roman Empire stabilising the political situation. Wars were still common, but main cities were able to prosper peacefully and once again the food was abundant. For the next 300 years progress prevailed and Europe experienced a Golden Age, in which the life expectancy reached an ever highest 42. It was brutally stopped by the Black Death and the Hundred Years War that followed, which instantly reduced the average life length by over a quarter to only 31. After another fifty years, Reformation began a century of religious wars and inquisition. Reaching the New World didn’t help our ancestor’s lifespan either, as sea mortality was high and the conquistadores rarely died of old age. Regardless of an enormous leap in general science and medicine, by 1620 the life expectancy managed to recover only 4 years of the drop, reaching 35.

Ever since then, the scientific progress has been fast enough to overpower any adverse conditions. Not even a revolutionary period of the second half of the XVIIIth century stopped the steady growth of the average age at death. Soon the industrial revolution pushed the world into the modern era and the greatest factor hindering life expectancy rise – infant mortality – was gradually defeated.

It is also worth mentioning that it was only in the XIXth century, when women’s life expectancy expected men’s one. This was because two main factors shortening women’s lives were eliminated. The first one was death while giving birth, which became a rare occurrence and the second one was lack of means to live in the old age, as in previous centuries women rarely held any positions of power and rarely inherited any assets. Moreover XIXth century saw the introduction of pension plans adding a few years extra for seniors of both genders.

In XXth century rapid progress of all fields of science and just as rapid change in lifestyle allowed our life expectancy to soar even despite two world wars and several social engineering experiments. For the first time in history mankind has an abundance of resources and unparalleled knowledge of our genome. Is this enough to push our lifespan to a new level? So… who wants to live forever?

Further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy

http://longevity.about.com/od/longevitystatsandnumbers/a/Longevity-Throughout-History.htm

http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reviews/life_history/age-specific-mortality-lifespan-bad-science-2009.html

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/200811/common-misconceptions-about-science-ii-life-expectancy

http://ourworldindata.org/data/population-growth-vital-statistics/life-expectancy/

http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-evolution-human-origins/life-expectancy-myth-and-why-many-ancient-humans-lived-long-077889

http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reviews/life_history/age-specific-mortality-lifespan-bad-science-2009.html

http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2009/08/john-hawks-on-historical-trends-in.html

http://www.popcouncil.org/uploads/pdfs/councilarticles/pdr/PDR281Bongaarts.pdf

http://www.helpage.org/blogs/mark-gorman-25/life-expectancy-myth-and-reality-374/

http://mappinghistory.uoregon.edu/english/US/US39-01.html

http://www.demogr.mpg.de/books/odense/6/03.htm

http://gerontologist.oxfordjournals.org/content/53/1/185.full

http://www.demogr.mpg.de/papers/books/monograph2/search.htm

http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/life-expectancy-in-the-middle-ages/

http://www.whydontyoutrythis.com/2013/04/the-oldest-man-in-recorded-history.html

http://www.holybooks.info/longevity.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oldest_people

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One thought on “Who wants to live forever?

    Dying for a drag | On my way to… said:
    January 27, 2016 at 5:10 am

    […] Even though other aspects of your health take a bit longer to improve, keep in mind that the risk of cancer and heart diseases decreases each day after quitting. Most cancer and heart-related risks decrease substantially within 5 years of quitting and dissipate to the level of a non-smoker after around 15 years, so it seems it’s never too late to quit, especially if you want to live forever. […]

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