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Press Release | March 31, 2003

Demography in the 21st Century
Implications of current developments in mortality

Prof. James W. Vaupel
Founding Director of the
Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research
in Rostock

With very few exceptions, life expectancy is on the rise worldwide - and with astounding regularity. Since the mid-19th century, the maximum respective life expectancy1 of a woman at birth has risen an average of three months per year. That is the main result of a study published in the renowned scientific journal Science in May 20022. In the year 1840 Swedish women held the record, with a life expectancy of just over 45. Today it is Japanese women who top the list, with a life expectancy of nearly 85 years. The life expectancy of men has also risen linearly in the same period, albeit at a somewhat lower rate of increase (on average, just over 2.5 months per year). Icelandic and Japanese men live longest - just under 78 years on average. The life expectancy of German men is three-and-a-half to four years lower, but here, too, it has been permanently on the rise.

The underlying reasons for this trend have changed, however, over the last century-and-a-half. While the increase in life expectancy was originally due largely to a drop in infant mortality (at the beginning of the 20th century, one baby in five died in Germany before reaching its first birthday), in the first half of the 20th century young and middle-aged adults profited from successes in the fight against infectious diseases, the introduction of vaccinations, improvements in obstetrics, and from the discovery of antibiotics and other modern medications.

In the last three decades of the last century, the picture changed radically once again. Current increases in life expectancy are due primarily to enormous mortality improvements among the elderly. In the year 1970, for example, a West German woman aged 80 faced a 10 percent risk of dying within the next year. Today this risk has dropped to below 5 percent. A study of the effects of German reunification carried out in the Division Aging and Longevity has succeeded in showing the considerable consequences that changes in living conditions can have even at very old ages3: Since the year 1989, the remaining life expectancy of an 80 year-old woman (i.e. the average remaining lifespan under the current respective conditions at age 80) in the eastern German Länder has risen within a decade by nearly two years to a present level of over eight years, which is nearly equivalent to that of the western German Länder. This is an impressive increase for such a short period of time. Men have not profited from these changes to quite the extent that women have, but here, too, an increase in remaining life expectancy for 80 year-olds from 1989 to 1999 of nearly a year-and-a-half could be observed. Differences in living conditions in east and west as regards improvements in mortality for the elderly have virtually disappeared.

A consequence of this reduction in old-age mortality is an increase in the number of oldest-old persons. In the former West Germany, the number of people who could celebrate their 100th birthday increased from 535 in the year 1980 to 2,501 in 1998, i.e., it nearly quintupled in the space of 18 years. We can also observe an increase in the number of centenarians in the former East Germany. True, today it is still rare that someone reaches the age of 100, but we assume nonetheless that approximately half of girls born in Germany today will live to experience the beginning of the 22nd century.

In addition to the centenarians, the group of oldest old people is rapidly increasing in numbers: the so-called supercentenarians, which are people who reach an age of 110 and older. The first confirmed supercentenarians - that is, those whose age could be reliably substantiated - go back to the 1960s, and their numbers have increased constantly since then. The International Database of Longevity (IDL) is being set up for the scientific study of this phenomenon by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in cooperation with the University of Montpellier. In it, all cases of oldest old people that can be validated according to the strictest of criteria will be collected. At the same time, researchers at our Institute will be responsible for Germany's contribution to this database. We expect this collection of all internationally available information to help us to arrive at new insights into the still rather seldom phenomenon of extreme longevity.

All these developments have, of course, far-reaching consequences, and prognoses with which one can project future mortality developments are of great socio-political interest. There is much to be said for the assumption that the processes that have led to these developments will continue to be active in the future. Just as we experienced technical progress in the 20th century that would have been unimaginable to people in 1900 (cars, airplanes, space shuttles, televisions, computers, the internet), it is not unlikely that the 21st century will bring significant progress in the area of genetic engineering, improved medical techniques thanks to nanotechnology and further insights into menacing illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease and cancer. One thing we can learn from the past is that all prognoses concerning improvements in mortality have proved to be too pessimistic when compared to actual developments. Increases in life expectancy are often regarded as representing a crisis - or even a threat. It is indeed true that our aging society presents us with a great challenge which we must face without hesitation. But ultimately, the fact that more and more people can reach an ever higher age - and that they can age in a better state of health than their forebears - is one of the great achievements of modern civilisation.

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.

 


1Life expectancy is a measure of the average age at death that the current mortality rate would result in if it were to remain constant. In general, however, medical and economic advances in the course of time mean that people born today will presumably have an even higher average life expectancy.

Topic-related publications

2Oeppen, J. and J.W. Vaupel: Broken limits to life expectancy. Science 296(2002)5570, 1029-1031. DOI:10.1126/science.1069675

3Gjonça, A., H. Brockmann and H. Maier: Old-age mortality in Germany prior to and after reunification. Demographic Research 3((2000)1. DOI:10.4054/DemRes.2000.3.1

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