How long will you live? Experts weigh in

People have long been fascinated with the idea of cheating death.

The quest for a fountain of youth or elixir of life has been the stuff of legend across cultures for thousands of years.

Advances in medicine and basic living conditions such as clean drinking water, reliable sources of food and decent housing have dramatically reduced infant mortality and allowed humans to make huge strides in life expectancy. The National Institute on Aging reports that the “oldest old,” people who are 85 and older, are the fastest-growing segment of the population in many countries.

We asked Georgia State University faculty members to weigh in on the topic of longevity, which raises a host of essential questions. How old can most of us expect to live? What are the limiting factors for living longer? Should we want to live longer?

Here’s what they had to say:

Sheryl Strasser, assistant professor, School of Public Health

In the United States, men can expect to live to their mid-80s and women can expect to live to see 90 and older.

How we age depends upon a complex web of factors. The most basic involves the individual, whether a person practices self-care, maintains physical and mental stimulation, and demonstrates work-life-stress balance. Research also indicates that intangibles such as spirituality, happiness and intimacy all have important implications for reaching advanced age.

Outside of the individual’s sphere of control, social support, or the lack thereof, can have a significant impact on longevity. Social support in close personal relationships—family and friends—as well as in the broader context of neighborhood and other communities, can provide opportunities to find purpose, carry out meaningful activities and participate in enjoyable activities. The absence of this support can compromise longevity.

Types of relationships also matter. Americans tend to cultivate relationships with friends who are similar in age. However, age diversity in relationships is important. Without trans-generational friendships, a person’s social circle will shrink with each year that passes.

Environmental and social policy structures are also a factor. For example, older adults who lack access to city amenities that facilitate active engagement in civic and social life—such as public transportation that accommodates a range of physical abilities among residents—may have reduced longevity when compared with older adults who do have access to these things.

All of these factors, the individual, social, institutional, community and environmental, are inextricably connected and truly influence the way we age and how long we will live.

Deon Lee Thompson, clinical associate professor, Department of Physical Therapy

As a teacher of anatomy, whether we’re talking cells, tissues, organs or systems, my belief is that our structure is masterfully and intentionally drafted. And I am awed by it daily. My viewpoint is reinforced by several observations, seemingly disconnected, yet all examples of that conviction.

  • The entire body plan is complete by the 12th to 15th week after conception. After that, the baby grows.
  • Cells have rigidly planned and purposeful growth within tissues and organs and then they stop to prevent overgrowth, only repairing when damaged or regenerating to form new tissue if necessary.
  • Function is optimized by specific architecture and framework.  Lever systems within the body, composed of bone and cartilage and powered by muscle, are purposed for necessary movement or stability. Principles usually applied to physics and mathematics are equally at home in the anatomic scheme.
  • The brain, a three-pound mass of tissue, embraces the very essence of our being. It holds our individual personality and deepest memories, and also coordinates and directs all functions via electric impulses traveling along strings of tissue that we call nerves.

Do I think that science can push the limits of the maximum lifespan? Probably.

But, based on our anatomic plan, are there any limitations to living longer? Or conversely, are there any flagrant design flaws that would limit lifespan? I think not.

What about those who want to extend life indefinitely, or hope to eliminate death? It is not my personal desire.

Each time I enter the lab, I sense purposeful and masterful intent of design. I observe method, order, symmetry, balance, efficiency, precision, restraint, flexibility, adaptability, and especially, beauty. Our anatomic structure provides a blueprint that can withstand most of the environmental insults we encounter and even the poor personal choices we make.

We are awesomely and wonderfully made.

Chris Parker, associate project director, Georgia Health Policy Center

Statistics tell us that on average most Americans can expect to live for about 80 years, a number that ranks us 35th in the world.

Averages make for good reports but don’t always tell a complete story. If you are man, subtract four to five years, as women generally outlive their male counterparts all across the nation, regardless of race or creed.

If you are an African-American or Latino male with a relatively low income, living in the southeastern U.S., then even the average life expectancy can be difficult to attain. However, the well-schooled Asian male living almost anywhere in the country can expect to exceed the average of even his similarly accomplished Caucasian peers in urban communities.

In a country where clinical and technology advances in healthcare are common, one might expect that its citizens, if not its residents, should live longer and healthier lives relative to other places in the world. The truth is that the likely length of our lives depends on a host of individual, environmental and system-level factors, all interacting in a complex way that does not easily lend itself to mathematical formulation. Based on the work of some really smart folks we are informed that unhealthy behaviors, genetic predisposition, poor social circumstances, limited or no access to quality healthcare and exposure to environmental hazards are the primary contributors to premature death.

There is also a growing recognition that where we live significantly influences our life expectancy and the quality of our lives. As an educated, insured black male of West Indian heritage living in a suburban community in a southeastern state, I should expect to outlive my less educated, uninsured kinsman living in a less health-endowed community, based on calculated odds.

This is because in some zip codes, a perfect storm of system and environmental issues reinforce poor health habits and even poorer health outcomes. In these lower socioeconomic communities where many people do not have college degrees, potential predisposition for chronic disease and illness is made worse by minimal access to healthy foods, suboptimal environments for physical activity and virtually no ability to regularly receive quality preventive or curative care without traveling miles to do so.

Notwithstanding the need to maintain our place and pace in developing new and effective treatments, if we are to improve average life expectancies nationally, then the focus of our collective efforts ought to be on improving the health of our already compromised communities. Otherwise, though we are created equal, the disparity in life expectancy will only increase over time.

George W. Rainbolt, professor and chair, Department of Philosophy

Suppose that scientific and technological advances led life expectancy to double, to reach about 150 years. Should you want to live that long? How long should people want to live?

There is a biological drive to stay alive. Humans are profoundly shaped by biology, but, fortunately, we are not slaves to nature. Societal forces push us to stay alive. Humans are profoundly shaped by society, but fortunately, we are no more slaves to nurture than we are slaves to nature. We reflect on and sometimes reject biological urges and cultural practices. We should critically examine the biological and society factors that shape our views of aging and decide how long we should want to live.

But isn’t life always good? No. Unfortunately, life can be quite bad. Lives can be filled with suffering. Consider those who are tortured in prisons around the world. Some of those people wish for death. Even if a life is not filled with pain, it can be lacking in all that is distinctively human. My grandmother lived to be 102.  Her last two years were not filled with pain, but she had lost most of what makes us human. She had lost what made her my grandmother. She did not know those around her. She was not able to speak, to eat on her own or to control her basic bodily functions. She probably did not wish to die, but she lacked this wish because she had lost the mental abilities needed to wish for anything.

We should want to live as long as life is good. We should want to live as long as we retain the abilities that make us human, the ability to laugh, the ability to appreciate music, the ability to enjoy a hug. But how many years is that?  It depends partly on us (do we smoke?) and partly on the state of technology. We should seek technology that extends not merely life, but good human lives.