The quest to live a long life is an innate human desire. Longevity is the story about the duration of human life. We are fascinated to learn about the longest-live people on the planet. Increases in human longevity are also a primary factor in the merging global age wave and the changes that will have a significant influence on society, politics, and the economy. By exploring the lives of people who have lived the longest on our planet, we may gain insight into how we can live to maximize our life span.
“Life, which once we took so much for granted, has become a precious but increasingly threatened possession, and what was self-evidently our own has changed into a loan of uncertain duration.”
– Hermann Hesse, Hymn to Old Age
Who Has Lived the Longest?
The longest-lived people in the world are beacons of hope inspiration, and insight into the mysterious realm of longevity. The word longevity originates in the Latin longaevitas meaning great age or long life. Closely connected to the duration of life is quality of life; that is to say, our real desire is to enjoy a long life in good health.
The term “oldest-old” is commonly used to describe people age 85 and older. The outer reaches of longevity is celebrated in the terms centenarian, a person that has lived to 100 years of age or more, and a supercentenarian, a person that has lived to or beyond 110 years of age. These people are our mythological heroes of longevity.
The Gerontology Research Group maintains a list of “Verified Supercentenarians (Ranked by Age).” As of January 1, 2014 the longest lived human being is Jeanne Clement (Feb. 21, 1875 – Aug. 4, 1997) at 122 years and 164 days old. The oldest male was Jiroemon Kimura (April 19, 1897 – June 12, 2013), from Japan who lived to the age of 116 years and 54 days.
Why do some people live to the outer extremes of human longevity while the majority of us experience a much shorter life span?
The reasons for this are not clear. The idea of identifying factors that extend longevity is common. For example, Jeanne Calment was believed to possess a strong resilience to stress: “If you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it.” While he was still alive, Guinness reported that, “Kimura’s personal motto was eat light to live long and he earlier said he believed the key to his longevity was eating only healthy food in small portions.”
Both factors seem quite reasonable, but are not sufficient in clarifying the precise reasons for their inspiring longevity. It seems reasonable to assume that a resilient personality and a nutrient-rich calorie-restricted diet are important factors in living long.
How can we identify the primary factors in living a long life while enjoying good health?
Where Do People Live the Longest?
A “Blue Zone” is a term used to identify a geographic area in which people are living significantly longer than average. Dan Buettner, a National Geographic writer and explorer, studied the world’s longest -lived peoples described in his book “Blue Zones.” His 2009 TED Talk entitled How to Live to Be 100+ has exceeded 2 million views.
One of the most famous Blue Zones in the world is the Greek island of Ikaria (or Icaria) where people live an estimated 8-10 years longer than the people in the rest of Europe and North America. Approximately one in three Ikarians live into their 90s and is home to an abundance of healthy centenarians who are largely free of dementia and other chronic age-related diseases. Ikaria has become known as, “the island where people forget to die’” as well as, “the island of long life.” Not only do the people of Ikaria live longer, they also enjoy a higher quality of health and wellbeing in old age.
Not surprisingly, one of the most important research findings is that there is no single factor that explains longevity. The key to longevity seems to be a complex interaction of geographic location, culture, food and diet, lifestyle, as well as the general attitudes and outlook of the people. In other words, longevity is fundamentally an integrated quest of body, mind, spirit, lifestyle, and environment.
The Longevity Revolution: The Global Age Wave
The oldest-old (age 85 and older) is the fastest growing segment. The United Nations World Population Ageing 1950-2050 report, identifies four demographic trends that are fundamentally changing the structure of societies around the world:
- Population ageing is unprecedented and without parallel in human history and is a direct result of the global transition from higher to lower levels of both fertility and mortality. Increases in the proportion of older persons (age 60 and older) are paralleled by decreases in younger persons (age 15 and younger). By 2050 the number of older persons in the world will exceed younger persons for the first time in history.
- Population ageing is a pervasive global transition that will fundamentally alter our social fabric. Its origins are in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and will continue well into the twenty-first century. For the first time in history, the population of older persons is rapidly increasing at 2 per cent each year, which is dramatically faster than overall population growth. Relationships between and across generations will be permanently altered.
- Population ageing is profound and has major consequences for family life, social policies, economic continuity and sustainability, and the political environment. The fastest growing age group in the world is the oldest-old (age 80 and older). The specific impact of an ageing population is unique to each country.
- Population ageing originated is irreversible and will continue into the twenty-first century. There will not be a return to the young populations that our ancestors knew. In 1950 the proportion of older persons in the global population was 8 per cent. In 2050 the proportion of older persons is expected to reach 21 per cent or 2 billion people.
The baby boomer demographic, a loosely defined generation born roughly between 1946 and 1964, is the leading edge of the age wave. Boomers started to reach age 65 in 2011. By 2031 the oldest boomers will begin to turn age 85, and contribute to the expansion of the oldest-old demographic.
The real challenge of the global age wave is to figure out how to evolve and renew the dilapidated infrastructure of our current social, economic and political values and beliefs. That is to say, the challenge is decidedly not to accommodate the global age wave into a system that is already ineffective, chaotic, and self-destructive.
Our most essential task, at any age, is to eliminate our destructive addiction to materialism, consumption, corporatism, and environmental homicide. An aging population is a profound opportunity to learn how to live together in new ways.
The Intimacy of Longevity
Longevity also has a deeply personal and spiritual dimension.
The question, “How long will I live?” captures the inner spirit and felt-meaning of longevity. It is an invitation to consider how we wish to live while simultaneously being catapulted across the trajectory of an uncertain amount of time.
We cannot know with any certainty how long we will live. We are all here for an uncertain amount of time and it is our relationship with this uncertainty that forms one of the core disciplines of aging.
Longevity is a child of aging. In a deeply intimate sense, longevity is a primal invitation to create a life imbued with meaning and purpose, a life that has been fully lived to the best of our ability, and a continuous effort to make the most of our time here, knowing that tomorrow may never arrive.