By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Who wants to live forever? Perhaps forever is a stretch, but could you live to 80, 90 or even 100? The oldest living person is 117 while some people don’t meet middle age, and it’s impossible to predict who will live longest. Or is it?
Scientists recently created a test that can predict whether someone will live an extremely long life. For these experts, it’s all down to genetics.
But other factors affect lifespan, from healthcare provision to education level and even feelings of social cohesion. Why do some people live longer than others? Can you predict how old you will be when you die?
How Long Are We Living Today?
Life expectancy increased dramatically in the 20th century. The Royal Geographical Society in the UK says that people in the Roman Empire could expect to live to just 25 years. In 1900, life expectancy was 30. But during the 2oth century, the average lifespan of the wealthiest countries went up from 50 to over 75.
We are living longer due to improvements in nutrition, medicine, and public health, including availability of vaccines and antibiotics. Health and safety has improved in homes and workplaces. Fewer people are smoking and air pollution has been reduced.
Your life expectancy actually changes as you get older. If you have reached late adulthood and survived these 10 dangers, the chances of you living to an old age are pretty good. And while the average life expectancy is 79 years, when you reach the age of 65 you have an additional, on average, 18 years left to live to make life expectancy around 83 years.
But it is not all good news.
People in the US are actually living shorter lives than people in comparably wealthy countries. And even within America itself, lifespans are dramatically different.
Who Lives the Longest in the World – and the US?
Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world at an average of 84 years, according to World Health Organization data from 2015. Next up are Spain, Andorra, Singapore, Switzerland, Australia, Italy and San Marion at 83.
There's a staggering difference of 38 years between Japan and the lowest country, Sierra Leone. Surprisingly, the US is ranked 34 on the list and life expectancy is an average of 79 years, behind Chile, the UK, Canada, and more.
Within the US, life expectancy for females is 4.8 years higher than males, and life expectancy for non-Hispanic blacks is 3.8 years lower than non-Hispanic whites.
Plus, surprising differences appear when you look closely at age, educational status, wealth, and even community integration.
Here are some of the Top 7 reasons people are living longer than others.
1. Genes Tell You When You Are Going to Die
Back to that test we mentioned. Scientists developed a genetic test that can predict to an accuracy of 77 percent whether someone will live a very long life.
Researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine in 2010 scanned the entire genome to see if someone is likely to live to 100.
The test was developed because longevity is closely tied to genetics, and researchers looked at the genomes of 1,055 centenarians from all over the world.
They found that 90 percent of the people in the study possessed a specific genetic signature that signified extreme longevity. Researchers say that living extremely long lives tends to run in families, but that a healthy lifestyle is also a big factor.
2. Universal Healthcare Makes a Big Difference to Lifespan
Scientists investigating why Japan has had the highest life expectancy for decades point to that fact that the country has had universal healthcare in place since 1961.
This significant factor, researchers at the University of Washington in 2011 reported, has been achieved spending around half what the USA spends on private and public healthcare.
Many experts believe that access to universal healthcare leads to improved health outcomes, which in turn allows people to live longer lives.
3. Guns, Drugs and Cars Mean American Men Die Younger
Researchers looking at why men in the US can only expect to live to 76.4 years – two years less than men in the UK, Sweden, Germany and nine other countries – say that deaths due to injuries are the reason for the gap.
A 2016 study from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health reveals that deaths due to injuries from guns, drug poisonings, and auto crashes account for 48 percent of the difference in life expectancies between men in the US and other countries.
These causes of death do not pose the same problem for women, according to the researchers.
4. Suicides and Substance Abuse Also Significantly Affect US Male Lifespan
Middle-aged white Americans, unlike every other age group and unlike middle-aged men in other wealthy countries, actually have a rising death rate rather than falling, according to a 2015 report by Princeton University.
And the difference is due not to heart disease and diabetes but alcoholic liver disease and overdoses.
Researchers analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to show that death rates are rising for middle-aged whites and are driven by suicides, drugs, and alcohol abuse.
The death rate rise to these factors could be pinned on increased stress, including financial stress, higher levels of mental illness, or on epidemics of drug use that bring down the average life expectancy for whole social groups - the startling levels of use of methamphetamine, for example, affect lifespan figures.
Only 5 percent of methamphetamine addicts are able to stop using the drug and the life expectancy of a habitual meth user is only five years. (Read more about oxycontin overdose)
5. Education Level Affects How Long You Live
One key factor in lifespan, highlighted in the study above, is level of education.
The death rate for white males aged 45 to 54 with no more than a high school education actually increased between 1999 and 2014 by 134 deaths per 100,000 people, according to researchers at Princeton University.
The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society at Columbia University initiated a 2011 study that shows “alarming disparities persist among racial groups and between the well-educated and those with less education.”
In 2008, Americans with less than 12 years education had a life expectancy not much more than Americans in the 1950s and 1960s.
And when race comes into the mix, it is even more of a difference – white US men and women with over 16 years of education have lifespans 14.2 years longer than those African-Americans who have fewer than 12 years education.
African-Americans with equal years of education to whites have comparable lifespans.
For example, African-Americans with 16 or more years of education live 7.5 years longer than whites with less than 12 years of education. Hispanic-Americans with 16 years of education live 13.6 years longer than whites with less than 12 years of education, all according to a 2008 study from a consortium of scientists led by Dr. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
6. Serious Mental Illness Reduces Life Expectancy
According to a 2014 study from Oxford University in the UK, serious mental illnesses reduce life expectancy by 10 to 20 years – similar to the reduction due to heavy smoking. The scientists looked at data from clinical studies and investigated the health of over 1.7 million people. You are likely to die between nine and 20 years earlier if you have bipolar disorder, 10 to 20 years earlier if you have schizophrenia, and between seven and 11 years earlier for recurrent depression.
7. Social Equality and Cohesion Help People Live Longer Lives
Looking at why people in Japan live longer, scientists think it could be due to higher levels of social cohesion and community, according to a 2011 study from CUNY School of Public Health and CUNY Institute for Demographic Research, City University of New York.
Japanese people, researchers found, feel strongly group-oriented and close to others with “deep feelings of belongingness to organizations and communities, keeping them from feeling alienated in the society.”
This gives them positive self-esteem and attitudes, which help them to be more proactive about their health, adopt healthier living strategies and make best use of medical services.