BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in:  Health
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Background Briefings 
Medical notes 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Thursday, 9 May, 2002, 18:06 GMT 19:06 UK
Life expectancy to soar
Erzsebet Keri, 73, being strapped to the wing of a plane
There is "no sign" of a ceiling on life expectancy
People are set to live increasingly long lives, and reaching 100 will soon be "commonplace", say experts.

They say that although there is no prospect of immortality, the trend for living increasingly long lives looks set to continue.

Centenarians - 100-year-olds - will become unexceptional within the lifetimes of people alive today, according to Jim Oeppen, from Cambridge University, UK, and Dr James Vaupel, from the Max Plank Institute for Demography in Rostock, Germany.

They said there was no sign there was a natural limit, as some experts had predicted.

Each time one has been suggested, it has been exceeded within five years.

Increased life expectancy

The researchers' suggestion that life expectancies could rise is based on patterns seen since 1840.

This is far from eternity: modest annual increments in life expectancy will never lead to immortality

Researchers Jim Oeppen and Dr James Vaupel
Since then, the highest average life expectancy has improved by a quarter of a year every year.

If that trend continues, the researchers say people in the country with the highest life expectancy would live to an average age of 100 in about six decades.

The researchers wrote in the journal Science: "This is far from eternity: modest annual increments in life expectancy will never lead to immortality.

"It is striking, however, that centenarians may become commonplace within the lifetimes of people living today."

Average lifespan around the world is around double what it was 200 years ago. It is now around 65 for men and 70 for women.

Japanese women are currently the likeliest to live long lives, on average reaching 84.6 years of age.

Japanese men are the second longest male survivors, reaching an average age of 77.6 years old.

'No ceiling'

The British rank well down the list. Men come in at 14th in the world table, living to an average age of 75 while women are in 18th place, living on average to 79.9.

In France, there is a big difference between men and women's life expectancy.

Men came 16th in the world table, with an average lifespan of 74.9, with French women in fourth place with a life expectancy of 82.4 years.

British women
British women have a life expectancy of 79.9
Mr Oeppen, senior research associate at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, said: "One of the assumptions is that life expectancy will rise a bit and then reach a ceiling it cannot go through.

"But people have been assuming that since the 1920s and it hasn't proved to be the case.

"If we were close to the ceiling we might expect the survival of Japanese women now to be improving at a slower rate. But the improvement in Japan is among the fastest in the world."

He added: "I think there is a ceiling, but we don't know where it is. We haven't got there yet."

Mr Oeppen and Dr Vaupel said their predictions meant even the highest forecast for numbers of elderly people in the future could be too low, affecting decisions over pensions, health care, and other social needs.

Political reaction

Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead and chairman of the all-party committee on pensions, welcomed the report.

He called for an independent body to be set up to examine the need for an increase in the retirement age.

He said: "If you look at life expectancy in 1948, when the state pension was introduced, and take that as a reasonable length of time to receive a pension, you would have a retirement age of 74 today."

Click here to check out your life expectancy

The BBC's Vicki Broadbent
"As the cost of pensions spirals there's mounting pressure... to raise the age for retirement
The BBC's Tom Heap
"The acute problem for society will be how to look after all the older people"
See also:

18 Feb 02 | Boston 2002
Hunting 'longevity genes'
17 Feb 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
China's secrets of long life
26 Dec 99 | Health
Children could 'live to 100'
13 Sep 01 | Health
Old-age 'tsar' promotes sex
05 Apr 01 | Health
Clever people 'live longer'
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Health stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Health stories