October 14 – The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

Today’s Factismal: There are 1,472 people who are known to have lived 110 years or more; 70 of them are still living.

There is no doubt that the average person is living longer these days.If you had been born at the end of the last ice age, then you would have expected to live about thirty years before being eaten by a smilodon. If you were born in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar, then you’d get about twenty eight years before being divided into three parts by a Gaul. If you had been born in the Caliphate during the 1500s, then you’d enjoy thirty-five years of life on average before meeting an infidel and an untimely end. Folks who grew up in America during the 1800s expected to see forty, but not much more. Today, most people expect to live to be sixty-seven.

Why the dramatic change? Are people really living twenty years longer? As with most scientific questions, the answer is both yes and no. We really are living longer, thanks to better medicine and improved diagnostics. Many diseases of old age that were once considered inevitable (e.g., Alzheimer’s, heart disease) are now controllable or even defeated.

One reason that people are living longer is because we have defeated childhood diseases like measles with vaccines (Image courtesy CDC)

One reason that people are living longer is because we have defeated childhood diseases like measles with vaccines
(Image courtesy CDC)

But a far more important component of this march to longer lifespans is what happens during youth. It used to be that childhood diseases killed a significant number of people before they reached the age of ten, which brought the average lifespan down considerably. Though we regard them today as mere nuisances, thanks to modern medicine and childhood vaccinations, at one time measles, mumps, polio, and other scourges of childhood would kill nearly one-third of all children. It was a truism in the Roman Republic and the American West that if you managed to live to fifteen, then you’d live to see sixty. Today, you are far more likely to see fifteen than ever and much more likely to see eighty.

Another citizen of Earth turns 100 (My camera)

Another citizen of Earth turns 100
(My camera)

By freeing us of childhood’s terrors, modern medicine has unleashed a growing tidal wave of people who live to see not just sixty or eighty but one hundred or more. Across the globe, there are an estimated 450,000 people who have passed their one hundredth birthday. And there are 70 who have hit the milestone of 110, with more coming every day.

Of course, science is trying to understand why some people live so much longer than others (and how to avoid the curse of Tithonus). One group is studying how a person’s apparent age may not match their biological age – and they need your help. Over at Age Guess, you’ll look at pictures of people and try to guess their actual ages. It is easy and fun to do – so why not head on over?

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