This week in breaking research that will affect how you live out the rest of your days, The New York Times (165 years old) reports that there's a maximum length of time a human can live. According to scientists who have studied such things for decades, the human lifespan effectively peaks at 115 years -- if you're part of the 0.0002% of folks in the US who make it past 100, that is.
"It seems highly likely we have reached our ceiling," said Dr. Jan Vijg, the expert on aging who led the study. "From now on, this is it. Humans will never get older than 115."
Everyone in the health world seems to be talking about this research, but it probably just confirms something you knew: There's virtually no chance you'll make it to 115.
What hellish voodoo have they employed to arrive at this number?
Vijg and his team's study, published this week in Nature, looked at average life expectancy in 40 countries since 1900. They found that while the average life expectancy increased (American children in 1900 could expect to live to 50; today the average is 79), the number of people of varying ages who were alive in a given year told a different story. For decades, the fastest-growing portions of the population were consistently older folks, but that growth began to slow in '80s.
They also compared their findings with the International Database on Longevity, which holds information on hundreds of people who live to an extremely old age. Charting each year that those people had died since the '60s led them to conclude that -- with rare outliers like a woman who lived to 122 -- the oldest age attained was about 115. Basically, the idea is that while the average lifespan has increased dramatically thanks to medicine and nutrition and all that jazz, if humans could really extend the maximum length of life, we would've seen more than those crazy outliers by now. And we haven't.
"You'd need 10,000 worlds like ours to have the chance that there would be one human who would become 125 years," Dr. Vijg told the Times. That's a lot of imaginary worlds!
It's worth noting not everyone agrees with Vijg's findings. One quoted by the Times decried it as "the same mistake" he's seen made many times over. Others feel it falls squarely in line with previous findings on the topic. It's also worth noting that earlier this year, the Times published an obituary of Susannah Mushatt Jones, then the world's oldest person. She was 116.
Ultimately though, what would living to 125 even feel like?
Death's a real dick. It's smelly and refuses to shower. It drops by unannounced. It never pays its tab. It steals your friends. It drives you to obsess over exercise, gluten, and whether everything you might do in your whole life might hurt you. It acts without prejudice and without apology. All these things are true.
And we're obsessed with fighting it. New Yorker scribe Atul Gawande's heartbreaking examination of hospice care for terminal patients is still a gut-punch at society's notions of how we think about (and pay for) the old and infirm, and collectively, the prospect of not existing terrifies us to the point that billionaires dream of staving it off with the blood of infants.
No healthy, mentally sound person wants to die, obviously, but you're not doing yourself any favors by trying to live forever. Death's an asshole, but it's also our banal, default measuring stick for assessing life. It's telling that perhaps the greatest Times obituary ever written was about John Fairfax -- adventurer, pistol-duelist, and a man who rowed boats across oceans. He defied death so many times that the writer Margalit Fox had no choice but to turn it into a rollicking adventure narrative that opens with these lines:
He crossed the Atlantic because it was there, and the Pacific because it was also there.
He made both crossings in a rowboat because it, too, was there, and because the lure of sea, spray and sinew, and the history-making chance to traverse two oceans without steam or sail, proved irresistible.
Fairfax lived to 74, dying in 2012 -- four years shy of the average American man's life expectancy in that year. Would you really need another 40 years to live a life worth celebrating?
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