It’s a Wonderfully Long Life: Examining the Future of Life Expectancy

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

Life expectancy has been rising dramatically since the 1800s, but in recent years growth has slowed down or even reversed. What can we expect in the future? Where do we expect life expectancy to go? And, is there anything we can do to boost life expectancy around the world? Take a look at the many issues, from money to economics, surrounding global life expectancy.

Miniature people and the concept of an aging society

From the BBC, a headline ran “Life Expectancy to Break 90 Barrier by 2030.” The article started not with text, but with a bar graph titled “Average Life Expectancy at Birth by 2030,” with different colored bars for men and women. Eight modern, industrialized countries appeared on the graph, showing South Korea, Japan, and France leading the pack in longevity and the UK and the United States at the bottom. The article mentions several things that South Korea, especially, seems to be doing well: dealing with hypertension, keeping obesity rates low, providing a good education, and ensuring good nutrition beginning in childhood. In contrast, in the United States, to quote from a professor in the article, “They are almost the opposite of South Korea.” The U.S. life expectancy by 2030 is expected to be the lowest among wealthy countries, overtaken by Chile, and on a par with Croatia.

The Life Expectancy Gap

Many articles about life expectancy stress the comparison between the United States and other countries, especially with countries that are considered poorer. Here is a headline example: from CNBC, “U.S. Life Expectancy Is So Low It’s Projected to Be on Par with Mexico by 2030.” That’s kind of a gratuitous slam on Mexico, isn’t it? Here’s another one, from Fox News affiliate KCPQ in Tacoma, Washington: “Life Expectancy Is Expected to Soar—Except in U.S.”

This is a transcript from the video seriesThe Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

An interesting side note: The website of the television station identifies the station as a Fox affiliate, with a Fox logo, but the article itself has a byline crediting the CNN news wire as its source. And KCPQ is owned by Tribune Broadcasting, which owns not only about a dozen Fox-affiliated stations, but also stations affiliated with NBC, ABC, CBS, and newer broadcast and cable networks. We might think we know the source of an item of news, and the political or editorial slant of that source, based on station ownership, but sometimes media companies are so complex and intertwined that we can’t assume anything.

Old couple walking together
As lifestyles become more similar between men and women, so does their longevity.

There’s another interesting take-home from these articles about life expectancy projections: The traditional gap between women and men’s lifespan seems to be shrinking. And not because men are living healthier. It’s because women, worldwide, may be starting to, well, act more and more like men: more smoking, more drinking, more road accidents, and more homicides. These problems had been mostly associated with males, but maybe that is changing. As lifestyles become more similar between men and women, so does their longevity.

Learn more about the lifestyle benefits of practicing mindfulness

More Money, More Problems?

We can also compare countries by looking at life expectancy versus per capita health care spending. NPR took a look at these statistics in a graph that accompanied their article “What Country Spends the Most (and Least) on Health Care Per Person?” Way down at the bottom was Somalia, spending $33 per year per person, with a resulting life expectancy of about 55 years. Lesotho, spending about $319 per person per year, isn’t getting any better value from that; their life expectancy is about 45 years, the lowest on the chart.

Depict health care spending using money , medicine and a stethoscope.
The United States spends far more on health care per person per year, than any other country.

But it’s when we get to the top of the chart that we see the most startling discrepancy. The United States spends far more on health care per person per year than any other country, at over $9,000 a year, but we’re far from the top in life expectancy. We’re an outlier, and not in a way that’s enviable. Number two in spending on health care is Switzerland, at $7,800 per year; they’ve got an average life expectancy of about 83 years, or four years longer than that of the United States. Statistics like these don’t get to the heart of the problem, but they do highlight that for all of our health care spending, we don’t seem to be getting much healthier.

Let’s Dream Big, People

Let’s look at one last topic in the realm of life expectancy, kind of an aspirational one. The question is: What is the maximum life expectancy of our species, of Homo sapiens?

The longest documented lifespan was that of Jeanne Calment, a French woman who lived over 122 years, from 1875-1997. In 2016, Science Daily reported a somewhat pessimistic headline, “Maximum Human Lifespan Has Already Been Reached.” The article is about a study published in Nature that suggested that it may be impossible to extend life further than that of Ms. Calment. This was, essentially, a demographic study. Researchers looked at mortality data and trends from over 40 countries. Since 1900, though the average life expectancy has increased tremendously, the gains in life expectancy for people living over 100 years have been flat. This is true no matter what year people are born. By their calculations, the maximum average lifespan is going to be 115 years, and the absolute maximum lifespan is probably 125 years. You may wish to work that number into your retirement planning.

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Well, not everyone was pleased with this research, and other researchers did not take this news lying down. From The Guardian, about a year later, came this headline “Maximum Human Lifespan Could Far Exceed 115 Years—New Research.” The subhead was “Five research teams say there is no compelling evidence there is an upper limit on mortality, disputing claim in Nature.” The article said that the previous research had, “prompted extraordinary levels of criticism from the scientific community,” and included this quote from one of the newer study’s authors: “It’s the worst piece of research I’ve ever read in Nature magazine. I was outraged that a journal I highly respect would publish such a travesty.” The author of the first paper shot back, saying that he accepts “absolutely nothing” from these criticisms, and that they were merely nitpicking from people who quote “hadn’t read his paper properly.”

Yikes. Strong words, and colorful and interesting reporting, on what usually goes on behind the scenes in scientific research. Science is messy and filled with people arguing over important things. But you don’t often get a feel for that kind of passionate back-and-forth commentary when stories are reported in the media. Seeing these kinds of disagreements out in public illustrates how science really works: People back up their opinions with evidence, and then they hash it out.

So, just what is the maximum human lifespan? We will just have to find out.

From the lecture series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media, taught by Professor Roy Benaroch, M.D.