Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Grim News for Immortals

By Michael Cook

A recent paper in Nature has cast a wet blanket over the dreams of immortality researchers.

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An analysis of global demographic data by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine suggests that the limit to human lifespan is about 125 years. Maximum lifespans around the globe kept rising until the 1980s, but they seem to hit a plateau at about 120.

The longest-lived person on record is Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days. Twenty years later, her record of longevity is unbroken.

The study, which was based on two international lists of the world’s oldest people, has created a controversy. On statistical grounds it was dismissed as “a travesty” by German demographer James Vaupel.

And gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, who has been working for years on rejuvenation biotechnologies, told Nature News: “The result in this paper is absolutely correct, but it says nothing about the potential of future medicine, only the performance of today’s and yesterday’s medicine”.

De Grey believes that it’s possible for people to be effectively immortal – at least to live long enough to be struck down by a lightning bolt rather than fade into senescence. He envisages lifespans of more than 1000 years.

Other scientists argue that ageing should be classified as a disease rather than as a life event. In other words, death would be treated as a medical failure than as something natural and expected....

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