The jury may still be out on the inevitability of taxes, but an unprecedented 14-country study has now confirmed the long-held belief that nobody gets out of this life alive.
In a 1789 letter written to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, a prominent French scientist, the American ‘Founding Father’ Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Now, a comprehensive study, published on June 16, has apparently confirmed at least one of those ideas.
Sure, they couched it in flowery, scientific-sounding phrases like the “invariant rate of ageing” and “age-independent mortality,” but in the end, a massive study involving scientists from the University of Oxford and 14 countries concluded that there’s no getting around the reality that nobody gets to live forever.
The idea at the centre of the study is the aforementioned “invariant rate of ageing” hypothesis, which postulates that a species has a relatively fixed, unchangeable rate of ageing once adulthood has been reached.
Humans have long been enthralled with the idea that we can find that magical fountain of youth to slow down, forestall, or even prevent death. More recently, better understanding of genomics and artificial intelligence, or AI (along with the technology to test, grow, and support that understanding), has led to a belief — or perhaps at least a hope — that we could somehow slow or even reverse the natural ageing process.
The results of the study seem to have largely dashed those hopes, though, showing that we very likely cannot meaningfully change the rate at which we age, due simply to built-in, biological constraints.
“Our findings support the theory that, rather than slowing down death, more people are living much longer due to a reduction in mortality at younger ages,” said José Manuel Aburto from Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, who analysed age-specific birth and death data spanning both centuries and continents.
“We compared birth and death data from humans and non-human primates and found this general pattern of mortality was the same in all of them,” remarked Aburto. “This suggests that biological, rather than environmental factors, ultimately control longevity.
“The statistics confirmed, individuals live longer as health and living conditions improve which leads to increasing longevity across an entire population. Nevertheless, a steep rise in death rates, as years advance into old age, is clear to see in all species.”
THE END OF A LONG DEBATE?
According to The Guardian, the debate over how much longer human beings can live has been an active one within the academic community for decades. The search for extended life has, for whatever reason, been particularly active in the United Kingdom, where at least 260 companies, 250 investors, 10 non-profits, and 10 research labs are using the most advanced technologies in their search for the secret to enhanced longevity.
Even the UK government has prioritised the separate sectors of AI and longevity by including both of them in the four industrial strategy grand challenges, which aim to put Britain in a leading role in this field.
However, what has been missing from the debate is comprehensive research comparing lifespans of multiple animal populations with humans, in a bid to understand exactly what drives mortality.
This study fills in those missing pieces, according to Aburto, who explained, “This extraordinarily diverse collection of data enabled us to compare mortality differences both within and between species.”
Meanwhile, David Gems, a professor of biogerontology at UCL’s Institute of Healthy Ageing, seemed to agree that the study rather pointedly answered the questions it sought to, noting that the summary of the report suggested the research was “a very high-powered study proving something contentious and surely right.”
Regardless of species, all of the datasets examined by Aburto’s teams revealed the same overall pattern of mortality: a high risk of death in infancy, which rapidly declines in the childhood and teenage years, remains low until early adulthood, and then continually rises with advancing age.
“Our findings confirm that, in historical populations, life expectancy was low because many people died young,” said Aburto. “But as medical, social, and environmental improvements continued, life expectancy increased.”
For all our growing abilities, however, we cannot escape the biological programming that informs our very species and the rate at which we age. Though people unquestionably now live longer lives due to advances in medicine, technology, and even adaptability, these factors don’t actually extend human life; they just allow us to live more of what’s been there as a possibility all along.
In the end, Aburto explained, it’s just down to what’s built in to us. “This study suggests evolutionary biology trumps everything and, so far, medical advances have been unable to beat these biological constraints.”
We’re a wily bunch, though, and over the years, more than a few people have sorted out ways to avoid taxes. So don’t expect people to give up trying to dodge that other pesky certainty, either.
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