How Many Years Can We Live, and How Can WeHow Many Years Can We Live, and How Can We Make Them Better? Make Them Better?

Is there an upper limit on human longevity? Some scientists now say that 115 is as old as most of us could ever expect to be. Others aren’t so sure there’s a limit. Still other aging experts say that whether or not there are limits on how long people can live, quality of life is the most important thing. Here’s a look at the latest thinking on human lifespans and senior quality of life.

How old can we get?

Researcher Jan Vijg of New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine made international headlines in October with his assertion that 115 is the average upper age limit for humans. Using many years’ worth of lifespan data from many countries, Vijg and his team determined that although average lifespans now are longer than in the past, there seems to be a plateau beyond which almost no one lives.

Not all scientists agree with Vijg’s study, which appeared in the online version of the science journal Nature. Some, like German researcher James Vaupel, say analysis of the lifespan data with different tools does not indicate a hard upper limit. Then there are unusual cases like Jeanne Calment of France, who died at age 122 in 1997, and Emma Morano of Italy, who is currently the world’s oldest living person at 116 (her birthday is November 27). Vijg says they’re rarities who beat extremely long odds to pass the 115-year mark.

Quality of life matters, too

What matters more to Vijg is what he calls the “health span.” Healthier seniors enjoy a better quality of life than those with major health problems, and there are other factors to consider, too. The 2013 United States of Aging survey found that social and family connections were strongest among seniors who reported the best quality of life. The seniors who reported good social and family ties were less likely to be depressed or to feel lonely – and researchers say loneliness can damage seniors’ health.

When doctors assess quality of life in their older patients, family connections, intimate relationships, and social activities are among things they look for. Other factors that influence seniors’ quality of life are:

  • Freedom from physical discomfort like chronic pain, digestive issues, or sleep disturbances
  • Mental health and overall outlook on life
  • The ability to take part in daily life and leisure activities
  • Quality of medical care

Money matters for quality of life, too, although not nearly as much as healthy and rewarding connections to other people.

Boosting social connections for better quality of life

Regardless of their age, if your parents are increasingly isolated or living alone, you can help them build social connections to improve their enjoyment of life and their overall health. Parents who are aging in place may need frequent video calls from family members and friends, trips to the local senior center or community events to stave off boredom, and visits from a home health aide who can help with chores, take your parents on outings, and let you know how your folks are managing at home. You can find more information about home care, including home care options in major US cities, at

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.


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