On April 15, Italian Emma Morano, the last living person born in the 1800s, died at the age of 117. The current universally verifiable oldest person in the world missed the three-century cutoff by just three months—Violet Brown of Jamaica, still alive at 117, was born March 10, 1900. There is also a woman in China named Alimiha Seiti who claims to have celebrated her 131st birthday on Tuesday, but the Guinness Book of World Records does not recognize Seiti’s longevity as legitimate. Nor did the venerable record book acknowledge Antisa Khvichava, a Georgia woman who died in 2012 after living what she claimed was 132 years. According to Guiness, the oldest person to have ever lived was Jeanne Calment of France, who died in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days.
Though all of these women lived exceptionally long lives, as fallible human beings they probably indulged in certain habits that may have prevented them from living even longer. Comedian George Burns, who died in 1996 at the age of 100, famously smoked multiple cigars a day, all the way up until his death. How long could he have lived if he didn’t suck down so many stogies? Taking it a step further, how long could people live if they never did anything to hinder their health? What is the theoretical limit to how long a person can live? According to a new study from researchers at McGill University in Montreal, there is none.
“We just don’t know what the age limit might be,” said Siegfried Hekimi, who co-authored the study, which was published Wednesday in the journal Nature. “In fact, by extending trend lines, we can show that maximum and average lifespans could continue to increase far into the foreseeable future.”
Published by Hekimi and fellow McGill biologist Bryan G. Hughes, the study refutes a 2016 study by researchers from the Albert Einsten College of Medicine that sets the barrier to life at 115 years, claiming the maximum lifespan of humans is “fixed and subject to natural constraints.” Hekimi and Hughes contend that this is an erroneous conclusion that resulted from “limited data available for analysis.”
After analyzing the lifespans of the longest-living people in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Japan for each year starting in 1968, Hekimi and Hughes concluded that there is no definable “plateau” to the limits of human life. “People who are dying now at 117, their early life was not as easy as that. Wait until we have our entire life as easy as it is now,” says Hekimi.
The researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, however, stand by their findings. “In the absence of solid statistical underpinning of various possible future scenarios, we feel that our interpretation of the data as pointing towards a limit to human lifespan of about 115 years remains valid,” writes Xiao Dong, one of the authors of the study in question.
In the end, there is no correct answer, and the studies are simply conflicting interpretations of available data, which of course cannot take into account future medical and technological advances, or scientific findings. “It’s hard to guess,” says Hekimi. “Three hundred years ago, many people lived only short lives. If we would have told them that one day most humans might live up to 100, they would have said we were crazy.”