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University of Illinois at Chicago Office of Public Affairs (MC 288)
601 S. Morgan St., Chicago, IL 60607-7113, (312) 996-3456, www.uic.edu/depts/paff

February 5, 2001 Contact: Jody Oesterreicher (312) 996-8277; joest@uic.edu


How long can humans live? S. Jay Olshansky, professor of biostatistics in the UIC School of Public Health, and his colleague Charles Nam, of Florida State University, are bringing together some of the world's leading experts to present their latest research findings on human longevity. Olshansky is among the panelists who will try to address critical questions about the human life span at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this month in San Francisco.

"Forecasts of how long humans can live have enormous public policy implications that already have influenced the rate at which the working population is taxed, the amount of money paid out to Social Security beneficiaries and the financial status of future generations," Olshansky said.

Although scientists have debated for centuries the question of how long humans can live, only recently have scientists, politicians and public policy experts become aware of how critical this research is. The financial solvency of Social Security and Medicare is heavily dependent on these forecasts, and many scientists disagree about how these forecasts should be made.

Researchers at government agencies, including the U.S. Social Security Administration and the U.S. Census Bureau, have made forecasts of how long humans can live based on statistical extrapolations of past trends in death rates and life expectancy.

"These agencies have a history of underestimating the rise in life expectancy in the 20th century," said Olshansky, who urges extreme caution when using a purely mathematical approach to making these forecasts. "The problem is that how long we can live is an inherently biological phenomenon, however, the methods used to forecast life expectancy completely ignore this biology."

Olshansky and Nam organized the session "How Long Can Humans Live?" to explore the basic issue of human longevity and also how these forecasts are made. "The challenge to researchers is to adopt an analytic framework that incorporates biological as well as social, behavioral and demographic forces," Nam said. The session takes place Sunday, Feb. 18, from 3 to 6 p.m. at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the San Francisco Hilton and Towers.

The speakers and topics are:

  • Leonard Hayflick, University of California, San Francisco, on "The Biological Limits on Human Longevity"
  • George Martin, University of Washington, on "Gene Actions that Escape the Force of Natural Selection"
  • Eugenia Wang, University of Louisville, on "Genetic Polymorphism of Human Longevity"
  • Bruce Carnes, University of Chicago, and S. Jay Olshansky, UIC, on "Prospects for Human Longevity in an Aging World"
  • Ronald Lee, University of California, Berkeley, "Forecasting Mortality: Are Past Trends a Guide to the Future?"
  • James Vaupel, Odennse University, Denmark, on "A Century of Centenarians?"

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