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Will Life Expectancy Ever Stop Rising?
Scientists: Human Lifespan Has No Natural Limit

POSTED: 6:08 p.m. EDT May 9, 2002

How long will you live? It all depends on the factors around you, according to new research.

The lifespans of people in developed nations are increasing at a remarkably constant rate, suggesting that there is no natural limit on life expectancy, said a Duke University researcher in an article in the May 10 issue of Science.

The researchers suggest that the maximum average human lifespan will reach 100 in about six decades, which policy-makers should consider as they make critical resource decisions affecting older adults.

In the study, researchers from Duke University and Cambridge University reviewed longevity data from developed countries, including Australia, Iceland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. They found that life expectancy in such countries is steadily increasing by three months per year.

"The key issue for policy-makers to understand from our study is that there appears to be no finite limit to life expectancy," said James Vaupel, director of the Program on Population, Policy and Aging at Duke's Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy.

"This has major implications for social issues such as budget allocations for the old and very old, and projections used to determine future pension, health care and other needs," he said.

World life expectancy more than doubled over the past two centuries, from roughly 25 years to about 65 for men and 70 for women. Despite that, experts have been unable to imagine a lifespan that could rise further, leading to "the notion of a fixed lifespan." Such a notion, the study noted, "is distorting public and private decision-making."

The researchers emphasize they are not saying there is no limit to the rise in life expectancy.

"There may or may not be some limit at some advanced age -- it is impossible to tell given current empirical data and theoretical knowledge," Vaupel said. "What is clear is that there is no limit that we are about to bump up against."

The researchers found that right now, the longest life expectancy -- almost 85 years -- is enjoyed by Japanese women.