October 08, 2003 | Press Release

James W. Vaupel in Science: Mortality is Highly Plastic

"It's never too late" to better one's chances for longevity, states James W. Vaupel in a "perspective" in the September 19 issue of Science Magazine. The perspective, co-authored with James Carey and Kaare Christensen, reflects results of new research on fruit flies that was published by Mair, Goymer, Pletcher, and Partridge in the same issue. Scott Pletcher is an alumnus of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and Linda Partridge is a member of our Scientific Advisory Committee.

It is not new to scientists that strict low-calorie diets can prolong life. But the latest research results reveal now that it does not seem to matter when the diet starts. For fruit flies the life-prolonging effect starts immediately, continues as long as the diet, and is lost as soon as dieting stops. This is the result of a demographic analysis of life and death of 7,492 fruit flies, carried out by Mair et al. They discovered that the protective effect of dieting becomes evident within 48 hours, whether the diet starts early in life or late.

James Vaupel writes that "Mair et al.'s findings are important not only in the context of dietary-restriction research but also from a broader perspective of what determines longevity. Demographers have shown that age-specific death rates for humans are strongly influenced by current conditions and behaviors. Mortality, even at advanced ages, is highly plastic." For humans, he sees German unification as a striking example that changes in current life conditions can change mortality rates even at old ages.

Vaupel lists "the kinds of questions that will spur future mortality research," such as "What genetic mechanisms and physiological processes determine the malleability of aging? Why does evolution license it?" Additional research will be needed as one cannot simply apply the research findings from fruit flies to the mortality of mammals. "Replication and refinement of Mair et al.'s experiments especially in rodents, the principal animal model of dietary-restriction studies, will be a research priority," says James Vaupel.

About the MPIDR

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock investigates the structure and dynamics of populations. The Institute’s researchers explore issues of political relevance, such as demographic change, aging, fertility, and the redistribution of work over the life course, as well as digitization and the use of new data sources for the estimation of migration flows. The MPIDR is one of the largest demographic research bodies in Europe and is a worldwide leader in the study of populations. The Institute is part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research organization.

Original publication

Vaupel, J. W., J. R. Carey and K. Christensen: It's never too late.
Science 301(2003)5640, 1679-1681. DOI:10.1126/science.1090529

Topic-related publication

Scholz, R. D. and H. Maier: German unification and the plasticity of mortality at older ages. MPIDR Working Paper WP 2003-31.


The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.