Throughout history the lifespan of humans has been expanding. Our ancestors living in the stone-age (the Palaeolithic period) only lived to around 33 years of age. Civilisation and farming helped extend our lifespan and in Classic Greece people lived on average to around 41. In ancient Rome, if you survived until 20 you could have hoped to make it to 50 years. Aristocrats in medieval England, who had quite a comfortable life, lived to around 64 but peasants only made it into their 30s on average. By the nineteenth century the lifespan of England had shot up to 40 for the whole population. By the 1950s, most people around the globe were surviving until their 60th birthday and by 2017 the world average age of death was 72 years. Now, at the start of the 21st century, life expectancy for us is about 80. Given we are seeing constant improvements in medicine and knowledge on how to stay healthy, is it possible that one day we will be able to postpone death forever? The scientists are telling us no. According to them, we humans are fast approaching the upper limits of life expectancy.
Life expectancy rose for a long while
For a long time human life expectancy just kept rising. For example a girl born in Australia in 2000 could expect to live to 82.6 and a boy 77.4. A girl born in 2001 had a longer life expectancy of 82.8 and a boy, 77.8 years. For 2002, it was 83 for girls and 78.1 for boys, but in 2011 scientists around the world became reluctant to extend life expectancy. Why? Some have suggested that in terms of age we have reached the end of the road or our upper limit. The oldest living person ever recorded was French woman Jeanne Calment. I once heard her tell a journalist that God had forgotten her! She was 122 years old when she finally died but that was back in 1997. No one has grown to be older!
So why are scientists worldwide predicting that we’ve reached the upper echelons of our lifespan? Some people say that for decades there has not been a major medical or health breakthrough. No one has discovered something as radical as antibiotics or vaccinations in recent years.
Could gene editing extend our lives?
A couple of scientists have put forward a novel solution to extend human life – gene editing. US geneticist, David Sinclair, has written a book called Lifespan which argues that by boosting genes associated with longevity, people may be able to live much longer. The question is will editing genes cause us other health problems? Ethically is this the right thing to do? Do we want to enable people like Adolf Hitler and Stalin to live for centuries? Would we be playing God or creating Frankenstein monsters?
The main reason life expectancy increased globally over the past two centuries was improved plumbing (meaning access to clean water), better trained midwives, vaccination programmes, antibiotics and people stopping smoking. But when people stop dying from one illness, another disease takes its place. More people are surviving heart attacks and strokes and cancer, but the death rate from dementia is rising. Researchers have no answers on how to cure dementia.
We are living unhealthier lifestyles
Another problem is that in high-income countries children are not living healthy lifestyles. They are not getting enough exercise. They are eating too much junk food, playing on computer screens, and suffering from obesity then developing diabetes as young adults. Sadly these children are not expected to live longer than their parents.
Diseases such as Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, heart conditions and joint deterioration are now being diagnosed in children, due to the increase in weight problems in children. Studies have suggested that obesity in children today may contribute to a two- to five-year decline in their life expectancy, shorter than that of their parents.
The evidence shows that poorer people are the ones most likely to see a falling life expectancy. They often don’t have the time to exercise and take shortcuts with meals including buying junk food, and so are more likely to be overweight. Worldwide the number of obese people is now at 2.1 billion, up from 875 million in 1980.
Obesity is impacting on people’s quality of life
Obesity is impacting on people’s quality of life as they age. Diabetes, kidney disease and neurological conditions like Alzheimer and Parkinson’s (linked to obesity) are all on the rise, in Australia and in much of the developed world. For many people, old age will not be their golden age, but a time of chronic sickness.
I do not have the power to increase the life expectancy of all Australians, but I’d like to see more investment in preventative health measures. Can we give people most in need subsidised gym memberships and childminding? Can dieticians run community ‘drop-in’ diet centres that anyone can attend? Can junk food be banned from all school tuck shops? I’d like to introduce all these measure but I don’t run the country, however I can encourage YOU to take care of your health and by doing that hopefully you will extend your life.
Harvard Medical Schools advice on extending your life
Okay, here is basic advice on extending your life from the reendowed Harvard School of Medicine.
- Don't smoke: Smoking contributes to heart disease, osteoporosis, emphysema and other chronic lung problems, and stroke. It makes breathing during exercise harder, making activity less appealing. It appears to compromise memory, too.
- Enjoy physical and mental activities every day.
- Eat a healthy diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and substitute healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats for unhealthy saturated fats and trans fats. A healthy diet can help you sidestep ailments that plague people more as they age, including heart disease, hypertension, cancer, and cataracts.
- Take a daily multivitamin, and be sure to get enough calcium and vitamin D.
- Maintain a healthy weight and body shape.
- Challenge your mind. Keep learning and trying new activities.
- Build a strong social network.
- Follow preventive care and screening guidelines.
- Floss, brush, and see a dentist regularly.
- Ask your doctor if medication can help you control the potential long-term side effects of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, osteoporosis, or high cholesterol.
This is simple advice on how to stay health and extend your life. My question to you is, are you honestly doing everything on this list?
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ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.