Content of review 1, reviewed on October 06, 2016

Comments about Vijg Letter and Olshansky commentary in Nature 5 October 2016, JWV

This publication is another travesty in a century-long saga of asserted looming limits to average and maximum human lifespan. It is disheartening how many times the same mistake can be made in science and published in respectable journals.

A century ago it was believed that average lifespan—life expectancy—would never exceed 65. As evidence to the contrary poured in, the limit was raised and raised again. Olshansky pegged it at 85. Japanese women today, however, can expect to live more than 87 years.

A century ago the maximum span of life was believed to be about 105. Again this limit was increased as people exceeded it. Vijg and Olshansky set it at 115 even though the current record holder, Jeanne Calment, lived 122.45 years: she is dismissed as an “outlier”.

In this sorry saga, those convinced that there are looming limits did not apply demography and statistics to test hypotheses about lifespan limits—instead they exploited rhetoric, deficient methods and pretty graphics to attempt to prove their gut feelings. The publications are essentially propaganda, not scholarly research.

Vijg’s travesty and Olshansky’s commentary on it in the same issue of Nature are further dismal examples. The material was published and is getting publicity because it seems plausible to many people that average and maximum lifespans cannot increase much more. The main evidence is summarized in colorful graphs that are problematic.

  • It is claimed that life expectancy is plateauing, approaching a looming limit, but the Figures in Vijg, including Fig. 1a for France and subsequent Figures for Japan, Italy and other large countries with high life expectancies, do not support this. They show a continuing rise in life expectancy albeit, in some cases, at a somewhat slower rate than in some earlier periods. There is no evidence that the slower rate will become an even slower rate and then zero.
  • The age at which the most rapid progress is being made in increasing survival is shown to be high—above 100 in recent years—and rising to higher and higher ages. It is claimed that this age plateaued after 1980 but again this is not supported by the graphs. The most important country for the analysis is Japan, a country with a large population and the world’s life expectancy leader. In Japan there is no plateau. Nor is there one for France and Italy, two other countries with large populations and high life expectancies, although there is some deceleration in the rate of increase. Again, there is no evidence that there will be further deceleration leading in the near future to a plateau.
  • Data on the maximum recorded age at death are simplistically and without any statistical justification fit by two lines—a rising line and after 1995 a declining line. More powerful methods, including methods from Extreme Value Theory, should have been used to test whether the data imply a decline in maximum lifespan.

Like analogous, disproven publications over the past 100 years, Vijg et al. and Olshansky add nothing to scientific knowledge about how long we will live. The publications are advocates’ arguments based on selective use of data, with one-sided conclusions not supported by the data.


    © 2016 the Reviewer (CC BY 4.0).


    Xiao, D., Brandon, M., Jan, V. 2016. Evidence for a limit to human lifespan. Nature.