Thursday, April 19, 2007

How Old Can Humans Get?

It is as much a philosophical question as a scientific one: How old can humans get? The evidence from a new study published in the journal Science suggests we have yet to find the answer.

The study shows the maximum life span increase in Sweden -- and by inference, other industrialized countries -- has continued to rise in the past century, but most especially during the past 30 years. From 1861 to 1969, maximum age at death in Sweden rose less than half a year per decade. Since then, the rate's more than doubled -- to 1.11 years per decade. The oldest Swedes now die at an average age of 108 -- eight years older than their counterparts from the 1860s.

"It's clear that people are living longer, and it's clear we can see no end with the improvement of life span," says Richard Suzman, PhD, associate director of Behavioral Social Research at the National Institute on Aging. "What accounts for the improvement in life span is a complex question that I don't think we have the full answer to. ... How much of it is related to medicine, public health, improved education, wealth, improved prenatal care, and early childhood conditions? I think all of these factors play a role, and we don't fully understand how to rank their importance."

Bob Roush, EdD, MPH, of the Huffington Center on Aging at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, says preventing senility and frailty are two of the key challenges facing an aging population. "'Don't do me any favors making me live until 110 if I don't know what's happening at 98.' That's the conundrum," he says.

"My whole pitch on increasing the quality of one's geriatric life is not just for today's older people but tomorrow's older people," Roush tells WebMD. "[You can live well] by staying strong, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, keeping your cholesterol down, alcohol in moderation ... don't outlive your resources. Prepare for a long life -- physically and financially -- and don't forget the spiritual side of things. Plan on living for a long time -- because you probably will."

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