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BETSY HART: 72 is the new 30

by on March 03, 2013 2:30 AM

Well, just in time. I’m learning that “72 is the new 30,” according to research published by German scientists in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.

I say “just in time” because I’m facing a big birthday in April myself.

The researchers found that human longevity since the beginning of the 20th century has skyrocketed at a pace that far exceeds anything seen in the previous millennia.

According to researchers for the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, for some 8,000 generations human life expectancy stayed roughly the same, about 30 years. Only in the last four generations has it really begun to take off. Now it’s as high as 72.

Though we’ve long known that life spans have increased over the last century, it’s not been so clearly quantified before. “The reduction in human mortality over the past century really is biologically unique. No other species has experienced anything like it,” said Oskar Burger, a lead researcher on the study.

As Dr. Burger explained it to me, as far back as 1840 the life expectancy of a newborn in the West was rising at about three months per year. But, of course, in 1840 life expectancies were so low to begin with that the difference wasn’t obvious until the turn of the century. As he told me, “around 1900 something really different started happening.”

By the way, that trend of three months of life expectancy being added each year continues, and, according to Burger and his colleagues, there is no strong evidence that this increase in life expectancy has reached any upper limit.

Burger points out that this has little to do with genetics, but with advances in medication, nutrition and so on. One real-life example of this is that current populations of hunter-gatherers, tribes living without the benefits of those in industrialized nations, have not experienced these increases in longevity like the Japanese and the Swedes have, the first-world nations that researchers focused on in the study.

Here’s what I love about all this: Extended life spans, and the greater health we experience for longer in our life spans, haven’t just happened in spite of industrialization and Western ways of living; for the most part, it’s happened because of them.

The very things that so many of my liberal friends denigrate are the very things that make life so livable for those of us fortunate enough to be aging in the first world. Pesticides, processed foods and industrialized farming make nutritious food affordable and available. Wealth created by free markets — which, yes, results in big houses, big cars and sometimes vast differences in living standards — also provides the means to clean up pollution. It’s no accident that in so many first-world countries, air and water are cleaner now than they were decades ago. Clean water alone is credited with some of the longevity increase. For example, diarrhea is a nuisance in the West, but, often caused by parasites in dirty water, is a leading killer of children elsewhere.

Drug companies’ profits on effective pharmaceuticals provide a financial cushion to offset losses on drugs they worked on that don’t turn out so well. The fossil-fuel industry provides cheap, available fuel for ... well, so much that makes our lives better and easier and healthier than was the case a century ago. For that matter, an advanced, service-based economy means that people aren’t doing as much difficult manual labor as they once had to do just to put food on the table. No wonder we are living longer.

Meanwhile, for me, it’s marvelous timing to find out about this research. I’m happy for the gains in longevity. I’m thrilled that if 72 is the new 30, this means that sometime in April I’ll be turning about 20.

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