In Theory, Humans Could Now Live Forever.

(Credit: Huyen Nguyen)

We already know that as we get older, the likelihood that we are going to die increases. But what if we’ve been wrong all along?

This new research, published in Science, is suggesting that, as long as we hit the grand old age of 105, we statistically could live forever. Now that’s quite a bold claim, and it’s not one that’s been taken lightly with other aging researchers.

It is thought that approximately every eight years our chance of dying doubles. This is referred to as the Gompertz Law of Mortality; named as the phenomenon was noticed by British mathematician and actuary Benjamin Gompertz almost 200 years ago. However, it was agreed that there simply wasn’t enough data to prove that the trend continues for all ages.

This new research carried out by a team led by Sapienza University demographer Elisabetta Barbi and University of Roma Tre statistician Francesco Lagona, suggest that this trend levels off after the age of 105, creating what is known as a “mortality plateau”. What this really means is that, after the age of 105, the chances of dying remain at 50/50.

“If there is a mortality plateau, then there is no limit to human longevity,” says Jean-Marie Robine, a demographer at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research in Montpellier, who was not involved in the study.

For this study, the survival probabilities were calculated for nearly 4,000 ‘super-elderly’ people in Italy all aged 105 and older.

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Many researchers say they hope to better understand what’s behind the levelling off of mortality rates in later life. Siegfried Hekimi, a geneticist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, speculates that the body’s cells eventually reach a point where repair mechanisms can offset further damage to keep mortality rates level.

“Why this plateaus out and what it means about the process of ageing — I don’t think we have any idea,” Hekimi says.

For James Kirkland, a geriatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the strong evidence for a mortality plateau points to the possibility of forestalling death at any age. Some experts think that the very frail are beyond repair. But if the odds of dying don’t increase over time, he says, interventions that slow ageing are likely to make a difference, even in the extremely old.

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However, not everyone is as optimistic. Jay Olshansky, a bio-demographer at the University of Illinois at Chicago says that the conclusions of the study are biologically implausible, noting that cells that do not replicate, such as neurons, will continue to wither and die as a person ages, placing upper boundaries on humans’ natural lifespan.

“You run into basic limitations imposed by body design”

This study has sparked up some interesting debate that undoubtedly will continue as the global membership in the 100-plus club creeps up.

But it got me thinking, would I even want to live forever?