Researchers announced last week that they had calculated the maximum human life span at 115 years. Fellow researchers have welcomed the paper’s results with mixed reviews. While some are praising the findings, others are deeply critical. It may take a century or more to discover whether living to 115 is commonplace, let alone beyond it. Since 1950, average life expectancy has improved from 66 to 82 in the western world but it was on an upward trend before then. These are the main factors contributing to human longevity.
The Advent of Vaccines
Today, each child receives a handful of shots and boosters in their early years. These protect against MMR (measles, mumps and rubella), polio and several others. As we grow into adulthood, the vaccines do not stop. We have regular tetanus boosters and for those who like to travel, against tropical diseases too. Few other medical advances have improved survival rates of children more than vaccines. Polio is all but extinct thanks to vaccines, smallpox is now consigned to history.
Thanks to public health programmes, we are eating healthier than we did 50 or 60 years ago, and certainly more than 150 years ago. Part of the remit of the NHS is to encourage preventive measures against disease. This focus on ensuring that we take care of ourselves has improved our own responsibility and awareness of what foods are good for us, and those we should take in moderation. A greater understanding of fats, sugar, salt and other substances means we (generally) can take better care of our own bodies.
Use of Antibiotics
Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic in 1929, though production did not begin until the 1940s. Since then, it has been a clear upward trend in living standards for all of us. Antibiotics treat bacterial infection, reducing risk of septicaemia and other infections that could lead to premature death. They seemed like a miracle cure. Diseases once considered incurable became routinely treatable. There is some concern about antibiotic resistant bugs today, but pharmaceutical researchers are presently looking for the next generation of antibiotics.
Childbirth Procedure Improvements
Children and their mothers dying in childbirth was horrific and a matter of routine in the past. We had a tragic situation where a couple would have 4-6 children in a hope that 2-3 would survive. Today, improvements in procedures and medicines for mothers and their children in the western world has greatly improved survival rates and, by definition, the average human life expectancy. Thankfully, complications that lead to the death of the mother, the child, or both are far less common.
We have cut down on the number of infections through general hygiene improvements. This is the result of big projects such as effective water treatment, but also on a personal level. This includes simple actions such as disposing of tissues when we have a cold, washing our hands before we eat, after handling raw meat and going to the toilet.
Why Is Male Life Expectancy Slightly Lower?
On average, male life expectancy is around 6 months shorter than that of women, but it is still on an upward trend in line with average life expectancy. There are a number of responsible factors:
- Over ¾ of suicides are men. The most vulnerable age group for suicide is 30-40
- Men are more likely to die through murder and manslaughter
- Men are more like to die in accidents – particularly road traffic accidents and in the workplace
- Coronary heart disease is more common in men than in women. It is far more common in men with depression
- Men are more likely to be homeless. Alcohol and drug abuse, physical health problems, hunger and hypothermia decreases average life expectancy here
- Male child mortality is much higher than female child mortality – some 25% higher. Boys are statistically more likely to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome than girls