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Longer Lives?

Verena von Keitz (cat)
July 19, 2008

For those in industrialized nations, it seems the average person lives much longer today than in years past. Whereas once life expectancy hovered around 35, now that number’s closer to 80. But will we all live to 100?

Man holding newborn baby
Females born in Germany today may live to see 82Image: AP

It's Friday afternoon in the small town of Bad Lippspringe and 92-year-old Anneliese Bee is paying a visit to her daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter. Four generations in one room is uncommon, Bee knows.

“As old as I am -- and still able to get around -- that's a rarity,” said Bee, who lives in her own apartment and regularly cooks lunch for her family. “My mother died at 68, my father-in-law at 70 and my mother-in-law at 68,” said Bee.

But as Bee has grown older, the life expectancy of those living in industrialized lands has also increased. It's not as unusual as it once was to see people living to 80 or 90.

“Over the last several years, we've seen the average life expectancy continuously increase,” said Bettina Sommer of the Federal Statistics Office in Wiesbaden. “If we go back to 130 years ago, we see the average life expectancy of a newborn has nearly doubled.”

Centenarian Rosa Richter received government congratulations on her 100thImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Sommer, who heads a working group dealing specifically with life expectancy averages, says that a female born in Germany today can anticipate seeing the ripe old age of 82. Male newborns can expect to reach 76 on average.

The questionable value of statistics

Of course, these values are purely hypothetical -- a palm reading of what's possible in the future, if you will. It remains impossible to predict on an individual basis just how long a person might live.

“Naturally, not all people who lived 130 years ago died at the age of 38,” said Sommer. “Many people died young, but there's a good chance that others lived to be more than 60 or 70 years old.”

The statistics likewise need to be adjusted according to infant mortality rates. A high early death rate can decrease life expectancy tremendously.

One statistical possibility considers the notion that while two of four people live to be 80 years old, the other two die at birth. That model makes for an average age of 40. At the same time, if we consider a group of four people in which only one person dies at birth and the other three reach the age of 80, the life expectancy has suddenly jumped to 60.

Some countries moving in the opposite direction

Sinking infant mortality rates, then, have a lot to do with increasing life expectancy. And in many countries, those rates have gone down thanks to medical advancements. Threats to infants and young children have substantially decreased due to the development of vaccines and antibiotics.

“That's definitely contributed to the sharp increase in life expectancy,” said Sommer. “And over the last century, the lifespan of older people has also increased.”

Children born in southern Africa have greater problems agingImage: Wolfgang Schmidt/Das Fotoarchiv

At least that's true for Germany, which ranks among the countries with the longest average life. Unfortunately, that life increase hasn't reached everywhere in the world, said Sommer. “While these advancements over the last century have been felt across the world, there are likewise countries which are moving in the opposite direction.”

In lands where AIDS is rampant, where many young people lose their lives in that battle, the life expectancy is sinking. In southern African nations, the average lifespan is under 40 years. The trend troubles many and aid agencies are working hard against the AIDS epidemic while also struggling to bring down infant mortality rates.

Your chances of growing older increase with age

While it may sound like common sense, the common belief now is that for every year you've lived through, you've increased your life expectancy. The older a person grows, the better his or her chances are to become even older. A 20-year-old can expect a higher lifespan than a newborn child because the 20-year-old has lived through the dangers of childhood and adolescence.

“Whoever is 80 today has a good chance of turning 81 tomorrow. But a newborn first has to reach the age of 80,” said Sommer.

That's proven no problem for the spry and spirited 92-year-old Anneliese Bee. But although she's feeling mentally at her peak, her body has begun to show its age. She's grown hard of hearing, has osteoarthrosis and is a bit unsteady on her feet. A year ago, she fell off her bike. Afterward, her doctor tried to prescribe her a walker to help her get around but she'll have none of that.

“If I do get a walker, then I'll think, okay this is it -- I really have grown old.”

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