Life span is defined as the observed age at death of an individual; maximum lifespan is the highest documented age at death for a species. From time to time we are told of a new highest documented age at death, as in the celebrated case of Madame Jeanne Calment of France who died at the age of 122.3 Although such an extreme age at death is exceedingly rare, the maximum life span of humans has continued to increase because world records for longevity can move in only one direction: higher. Despite this trend, however, it is almost certainly true that, at least since recorded history, people could have lived as long as those alive today if similar technologies, lifestyles and population sizes had been present. It is not people that have changed; it is the protected environments in which we live and the advances made in biomedical sciences and other human institutions that have permitted more people to attain, or more closely approach, their life-span potential.4 Longevity records are entertaining, but they have little relevance to our own lives because genetic, environmental and lifestyle diversity5 guarantees that an overwhelming majority of the population will die long before attaining the age of the longest-lived individual.
3Allard M, Lebre V, Robine JM., Calment J. Jeanne Calment: From Van Goghs time to ours: 122 extraordinary years. W.H. Freeman & Co.: New York; 1998.
4Carnes BA, Olshansky SJ, Grahn D. Continuing the search for a law of mortality. Popul Dev Rev. 1996;22(2):231-264.
5Finch C, Kirkwood TBL. Chance, Development, and Aging. Oxford University Press; 2000.
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