Just a year ago, I had a regular attendee in my Paradoxes Sunday school class1 who was 101 years old. He was mentally sharp and, for his age, physically fit. He lived alone and drove himself to class. He claimed that the secret to his longevity was a disciplined diet and daily physical and mental exercise. However, a few months ago, he caught a flu bug that within a week took his life.
Our class centenarian was an example to all of us that a disciplined lifestyle will extend our lives but also that there seems to be a limit beyond which none of us can go. Now, a recent exchange of papers in the journal Science establishes that there is indeed a hard limit to how long we humans can live—a limit that is in perfect accord with what was written in Genesis nearly 3,500 years ago.
Genesis 6:3 states, “Then the LORD said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.’” What follows in the genealogy in Genesis 11:10–32 is a record of gradual decline in maximum human life span, from Methuselah’s 969 years to Abraham’s 175 years. From Abraham to the time of Moses, the maximum human life span declined to the 120 years written in Genesis 6:3.
From the time of Moses onward, according to the Bible, the maximum human life span is about 120 years. As in English literature, the zero should not be considered a significant figure. For example, a report on a sporting event might say there were 50,000 fans in attendance, when in reality the figure may have been 50,067 or 49,945. That is, according to the Bible, the maximum human life span = 120±5 years.
A team of five demographers and statisticians led by Elisabetta Barbi at Sapienza University of Rome cited evidence that appeared to challenge the biblically stated human life span limit.2 Analyzing birth and death records in Italy, Barbi’s team estimated fatal hazard rates on all Italians age 105 and older. The number of Italians in this age range was 3,836. Barbi’s team observed hazard curves “which were essentially constant beyond age 105.”3 Based on their analysis of the Italian birth and death records, the researchers concluded that human death rates rise exponentially up to about age 80, then decelerate slightly, and plateau for ages 105 and beyond. Citing the plateau, the team suggested that a limit to human longevity, “if any, has not been reached.”4
However, a team of three gerontologists and biologists challenged the suggestion of no limit to human longevity.5 Their challenge consisted of two independent calculations based on two different databases.
First, they used the data analyzed by Barbi’s group to demonstrate that the maximum life span for Italians, given a constant rate of annual mortality at age 105 and beyond, would be at least two years below the 122-year world record established by Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment (see figure). That life span limit held, even for a population size of 105- and beyond-year-old Italians that is three times bigger than the 3,836 humans in the Barbi team’s database. The second group of researchers then showed that increasing the population of humans aged 105 and beyond to more than 10,000 individuals did little, if anything, to enhance the maximum life span.
Figure: Jeanne Calment, the only human verified to live to 120 years. Image credit: The Independent.
Calment (February 21, 1875–August 4, 1997) was the first human being verified to live to 116 years or beyond. To date, she ranks as the only human verified to live to 120 years or beyond.
Since Calment’s death in 1997, the number of people worldwide reaching the age of 110 has doubled.6 Nevertheless, no human since 1997 has lived beyond 120 years. This statistic affirms the three researchers’ conclusion that augmenting the population of humans age 105 and beyond does little, if anything, to enhance maximum human life spans.
The second way the research trio challenged the Barbi team’s conclusion was through calculations based on the Gompertz mortality model. The Gompertz mortality model was developed from comprehensive laboratory experiments designed to enhance the life expectancy of rats. These experiments showed that a combination of a highly restricted diet, minimization of caloric intake, regular exercise, and stress reduction greatly enhanced the maximum life span of rats. Two researchers, Caleb Finch and Malcolm Pike, showed that if the degree of mortality rate slowdown achieved in all these experiments is applied to humans, the median human life expectancy would approach, but not attain, 120 years.7
Barbi’s team claimed that the Gompertz mortality model does not hold for humans after age 80. However, the three gerontologists and biologists pointed out that 95 percent of adult mortality in the team of five’s database is indeed described by the Gompertz mortality model.8 They also showed that calculations of the maximum human life span from Gompertz exponential mortality rates closely agree with reported records.9
The three researchers concluded that “regardless of whether one chooses an extrapolation assuming a mortality plateau after age 105 as calculated by Barbi et al. or by a continued Gompertzian increase in mortality after that age, the likelihood of anyone surviving beyond the longevity record of Calment becomes remote.”10 Thus, these new scientific studies establish that the hard limit to the human life span stated in the Bible nearly 3,500 years ago is accurate.
What is responsible for the current hard limit on human life span? Why did humans living before the flood of Noah have the capability of living nearly eight times longer than us? I answer these questions in chapter 13 of my book, Navigating Genesis.11 My colleagues Fazale Rana and Kenneth Samples will soon be releasing a new book, Humans 2.0, in which they address current scientific efforts to extend human life spans beyond the biblically stated limit, how those efforts challenge the Bible’s gospel message, and how we can use the latest science and the Bible to respond to this new challenge.12 In my book, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, I explain why we are much better off physically and spiritually with a maximum life span of 120 years compared to the pre-flood maximum of 970 years.13
These studies give us yet more evidence for the Bible’s predictive power. Any time we see consistent and accurate predictions of future scientific discoveries centuries, even millennia, in advance, Christians can be confident in Scripture’s divine origin.
Featured image: Okinawa Island boasts the highest percentage of people over age 100. Image credit: Paipateroma.