Genesis tells us that Methuselah lived a full 969 years and his son, Lamech, who later fathered Noah, lived an equally impressive interval. And so, in the nine generations intervening between Adam and Noah, the patriarchs each lived an average of 858 years.
Then came the years of trouble and spiritual dismay, culminating in the Great Flood. These were times of corruption and moral debasement. And the Lord said: “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.”
And the extraordinary longevity of those antediluvian patriarchs? Perhaps merely poetic metaphor; perhaps it was mythic bravado by the succeeding generations of biblical scribes; perhaps it was only fanciful recordkeeping. But this is certain: Despite the tales of yogurt-consuming Caucasians, there has been no authenticated instance of a human surviving more than the Biblically-ordained twelve decades. And most current biology texts routinely now accept 120 years as the upper limit of human survival. Shigichio Izumi of Kyushu, Japan, lived for 120 well-documented years before dying in 1986. And Jeanne Calment of New York, in 2013, was said to have lived for 122 years.
Despite its burdens of famine, wars and pestilence, human history has been a gratifying chronicle of increasing longevity approaching, but rarely reaching, the Scriptural frontier of 120 years. The census data from England and Wales show a steady improvement of the length – if not necessarily the quality – of life. In 1541, the average Englishman lived 33.7 years; in 1846, 40.9 years; in 1984, 74.8 years. And in recent decades, each new calendar year has added about three additional months of life expectancy for an English newborn.
There continues to be vast differences in the life expectancies in today’s nations of the world. Nations which are less developed (in terms of per capita wealth, education and access to public health resources) tend to have shorter lifespans. And so, average life expectancies in impoverished nations such as Angola, Burkina Faso or Haiti hover around 40 years.
In wealthier nations, an estimated 31 percent of the population will live beyond 85 years and 1.5 percent will survive beyond their 100th birthday. In the United States, the average 85 year-old may now look forward to an additional 6.2 years of life. In the wealthiest of nations, particularly Japan and Switzerland, a small but increasing fraction of the very elderly will undergo what is called healthy aging, traversing the ninth and tenth decades with reduced morbidity and relatively undiminished secular activity. For most living beyond 85 years, vulnerable to the ravages of senility, there are no winners, only survivors.
The increased longevity leads to some curious realities: The average woman in an industrialized nation may now spend more years nurturing her elderly parents than the years she invests in bringing up her own children.
The gender differential favoring the female is a fairly universal observation, except for the more impoverished nations (such as Bangladesh) where prevailing social customs discriminately favor the male infant, resulting in greater mortality rates for female infants and greater survival averages for male adults. In the United States, the average 65 year-old male may expect another 14.7 years of life; 65 year-old females, however, may anticipate another 18.6 years of life, a gradient differential of 3.9 years.
Recent demographic data from the United Nations indicates that Japan boasts the healthiest longevity rates in the world (average survival years for both genders, 83 years). Israel, tied for fourth place, has an average survival age of 82; and the United States, in 33rd place, has a combined gender average survival of 79 years.
Longevity records for humans, elephants and even box turtles seem impressive until we confront, in profound awe, the giant redwood (sequoia) trees with their life expectancies measured, not in years but in millennia. Only then do we give credence to the Scriptural words of the psalmist: “For I am but a passing guest, a sojourner like all my fathers.”
Stanley M. Aronson, M.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org), is a Providence resident.