Life surpassing old expectations

Age: The average life expectancy in the United States has reached 77.4 years. By century's end, could it hit 150? How about 1,000?

Medicine & Science

March 15, 2004|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Live it up! Life just got 73 days longer.

The average person born in the United States can expect to live to the respectable, if not ripe, old age of 77.4 years -- up two-tenths of a year to a new record high.

Males still lag years behind females, and blacks continue to trail whites, but the encouraging news is this: People in each group have bought themselves a little more time.

Life expectancy -- a fundamental measure of a society's well being -- has been climbing steadily for more than a century, thanks in large part to public health advances such as clean water and antibiotics. But, given how far we've come, it can't be expected to climb much higher.

Or can it?

"While we may be experiencing some increases today, unless there's some sort of major medical breakthrough, these increases are going to slow down and probably come to a halt," said S. Jay Olshansky, an epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, Illinois and an expert on longevity.

By "breakthrough," Olshansky means something far bigger than finding a cure for America's three leading killers: heart disease, cancer and stroke. Even wiping out cancer, which causes more than a quarter of the 2.4 million deaths annually, would add only about 3 1/2 years to the country's overall average life expectancy, he said.

The problem is that even people who overcome that disease will die of something else. Our bodies, after all, are not built to last.

`Cure' for aging

In extending our life expectancy, we have become victims of our own success. The higher it climbs, experts say, the harder it will be to record further gains.

"When you save a baby from dying, you add many more years to life. When you save an 80-year-old from dying, by comparison, you add many fewer years to life," said Olshansky. "We've achieved most of the gains that can be achieved by saving the young, and now the vast majority in the rise in life expectancy has to result in saving population over the age of 50."

The new life expectancy figures, released last month by the federal government, apply to babies born in 2002.

Olshansky predicts that male life expectancy will top out at 82 (now, at birth, males can be expected to live to 74.7), while females will level off at 88 (they are now expected to live to 79.9).

Some demographers, however, have far higher expectations. Aubrey de Grey, a gerontologist at the University of Cambridge in England who is seeking a science-based "cure" for aging, thinks people will live well beyond 100 during this century because of medical advances yet to be made.

The first person to hit 150, he believes, is already 50 now. And the first individual to celebrate 1,000 -- imagine the candles on that birthday cake -- is just five years younger, he contends.

The oldest person on record died in 1997 in France at 122.

The way de Grey sees it, science has figured out, in principle if not in practice, how to "fix" all the different types of damage that occur in the human body. So fixing the problem of aging will be akin to fixing a roof that leaks or a car engine that dies: Periodically, we'll have to go in for repairs.

"Aging is fundamentally barbaric, and something should be done about it," said de Grey, who has published research in Science and other peer-reviewed journals. "It shouldn't be allowed in polite society."

He concedes that most people presently view "life extension" the same way they view being able to, say, teleport themselves across town. They don't think advances made in their lifetimes will affect them or even their children.

"The sea change in attitude will be triggered by results in the laboratory [in] mice," said de Grey, who last year instituted the "Methuselah Mouse Prize," a contest to engineer the oldest-living mouse. "That could happen certainly within 10 years."

Not necessarily desirable

Life expectancy in the United States in 1900, at birth, was 47.3 years. By the 1929 stock market crash, it had climbed to 57.1.

At the end of World War II, it was 65.9. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, it had risen to 73.7. During the more than two decades since, as disease detection and treatment have improved, life expectancy has climbed another 3.7 years.

Kenneth D. Kochanek, a statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics who authored the new report, said that a particularly bad influenza year could cause life expectancy to remain stagnant or even drop. So, too, can other unpredictable factors -- such as war.

Life expectancy "dropped" from 54.2 years at the start of World War I to 39.1 by the time the conflict ended.

Though an increase is always greeted as good news, some say that living longer isn't necessarily desirable, especially if it comes at the expense of living in good health. It's the difference, they say, between "young old" and "old old."

Redesigning the body

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