That we’re all getting older — not only as individuals, but as societies — will not come as any surprise. Nevertheless, the demographic details are fascinating.
For a very readable review of research into the rise of longevity, this paper, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, comes highly recommended. James Vaupel and his fellow authors show how improvements in mortality are happening at all advanced ages from 80 through to 95 (and beyond in some countries). In other words, it’s not a case of just about getting people through their eighties only for them to drop like flies in their early nineties.
Furthermore, increased longevity is more than a generational effect — i.e. old people today aren’t living longer just because they’ve their lives have been easier than the old people of previous generations. Also important is that things are getting better for old people when they’re old. A particularly interesting piece of evidence is what happened in Germany following re-unification:
But surely there has to be some sort of boundary — a point at which no level of improved healthcare can keep the grim reaper at bay? Those who believe that there’s a hard limit to human longevity point to the example of Jeanne Calment, the French woman who died at the age of 122 in 1997. The fact that we’re approaching the 25th anniversary of her death without anyone breaking her record would suggest that we’ve gone about as far as we can go in this life.
However, Calment’s lifespan is such an extreme occurrence, that, statistically, one would expect a record like that to remain unbroken for a long-time — even against a background in which more and more people are becoming centenarians and super-centenarians.
A hard limit to the maximum extant of extreme old age doesn’t mean that we won’t see merely very old age becoming the norm. Indeed, the authors show how that the increase in life expectancy at birth goes hand-in-hand with an increase in life span equality. In other words, everyone gets to share in the longevity dividend, not just the most privileged members of society.
In specific cases where that doesn’t happen — for instance, America’s opioid epidemic — it’s a sure sign something has gone horribly wrong.
Speaking of which, we can’t talk about human mortality without mentioning the Covid pandemic. Around the world we’ve seen societies make extraordinary sacrifices to contain a disease which disproportionately kills the elderly. It’s hard to imagine earlier eras doing so much to protect their oldest members.
But then, in earlier eras, people didn’t live as long. “Three-score-years-and-ten” marked a limit that has now been erased. The idea that the Covid is mostly killing people who were ‘about to die anyway’ is one of the biggest myths of pandemic. To die at 70 because someone couldn’t be bothered to wear a mask is, most likely, to be robbed of years — perhaps decades — of life.