How long can a healthy person live?

After French nun Lucile Randon died last week, Spanish great-grandmother Maria Branyas Morera, 115, has taken the title of oldest living person, according to Guinness World Records.

As early as the 18th century, the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, known as Comte de Buffon, theorized that a person who had not suffered an accident or disease could theoretically live a maximum of 100 years.

Since then, medical advances and improved living conditions have pushed the boundary back a few decades.

A new milestone was reached when French Jeanne Calment celebrated her 120th birthday in 1995.

Calment died two years later at the age of 122. She remains the oldest person who has ever lived – at least that is proven.

According to the United Nations, there were an estimated 593,000 people aged 100 or older in 2021, up from 353,000 a decade earlier.

According to the data agency Statista, the number of centenarians is expected to more than double in the next ten years.

The Comte de Buffon may also have been surprised by the rise of supercentenarians – people aged 110 and over – whose numbers have been increasing since the 1980s.

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Natural limit at 115?

So how far could we go? Scientists disagree, with some claiming that the lifespan of our species is limited by severe biological constraints.

In 2016, geneticists wrote in the journal Nature that there had been no improvement in human longevity since the late 1990s.

Analyzing global demographics, they found that the maximum human life expectancy had declined since Calment’s death — even though there were more elderly people around the world.

“They concluded that the human lifespan has a natural limit and that longevity is limited to around 115 years,” French demographer Jean-Marie Robine told AFP.

“But this hypothesis is partially disputed by many demographers,” said Robine, a centenarian specialist at the INSERM medical research institute.

Research from 2018 found that while the death rate increases with age, it slows down after age 85.

Around the age of 107, the death rate peaks at 50-60% each year, the study found.

“According to this theory, if there are 12 people who live to be 110, six will survive to live to be 111, three to live to be 112, and so on,” Robine said.

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A numbers game

But the more supercentenarians, the higher the chance that a few will live to reach record age.

If there are 100 super centenarians, “50 will live to be 111, 25 to be 112,” said Robine.

“Thanks to a ‘volume effect’, there are no longer any fixed limits to longevity.”

However, Robine and his team are releasing research this year that will show the death toll continues to rise beyond the age of 105, further narrowing the window.

Does this mean there is a hard cap on how long we can live? Robine won’t go that far.

“We will continue to make discoveries as we have always done, and the health of the oldest will gradually improve,” he said.

Other experts are also reluctant to choose a side.

“At the moment there is no definitive answer,” said France Mesle, demographer at the French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED).

“Even though they are increasing, the number of people living to a very old age is still quite small and we still can’t make a significant statistical estimate,” she told AFP.

So it could be a matter of waiting for the increasing number of supercentenarians to test the “volume effect”.

And, of course, some future medical breakthroughs could soon turn everything we know about death on its head.

Eric Boulanger, a French doctor specializing in the elderly, said “genetic manipulation” could allow some people to live 140 or even 150 years.

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