What’s the longest humans can live? 115 years for women, 114 for men. Plus: how phones, drones help save lives of world’s poor

Dutch researchers use extreme value theory to work out oldest age humans can reach. Meanwhile, new technology helps save lives in developing countries

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 1:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 1:04pm

Dutch researchers claim to have discovered the maximum age “ceiling” for human lifespan, despite growing life expectancy because of better nutrition, living conditions and medical care.

Mining data from some 75,000 Dutch people whose exact ages were recorded at the time of death, statisticians at Tilburg and Rotterdam’s Erasmus universities pinned the maximum ceiling for female lifespan at 115.7 years.

Men came in at 114.1 years in the samples taken from the data, which spans the past 30 years, says Professor John Einmahl, one of three scientists conducting the study.

“On average, people live longer, but the very oldest among us have not got older over the past 30 years,” says Einmahl.

“There is certainly some kind of a wall here. Of course the average life expectancy has increased,” he says, pointing out the number of people turning 95 in The Netherlands had almost tripled.

“Nevertheless, the maximum ceiling itself hasn’t changed,” he says.

Lifespan is the term used to describe how long an individual lives, while life expectancy is the average duration of life that individuals in an age group can expect to have – a measure of societal well-being.

Hongkongers top life expectancy rankings worldwide for second year in a row

Hong Kong enjoys the highest life expectancy ratings worldwide, with women expected to reach 87.34 years and men 81.32 years, according to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

The Dutch findings come after US-based researchers last year claimed a similar age ceiling but said exceptionally long-lived individuals were not getting as old as before.

Einmahl and his researchers dispute the latter finding, saying their conclusions, deduced by using a statistical brand called “extreme value theory”, showed almost no fluctuation in maximum lifespan.

Einmahl says, however, there were still some people who had bent the norm, like Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment who died at the ripe old age of 122 years and 164 days. She remains the oldest verified woman to date.

Extreme value theory is a branch of statistics that measures data and answers questions at extreme ends of events such as lifespan or disasters. Einmahl says his group’s findings will be submitted for publication in a peer review magazine “within the next month or so”.

Phones and drones transform health care in developing countries

In the developing world, basic health care is often a challenge – let alone expensive medical screening or tests for easily treatable, preventable illnesses.

TEDGlobal, an annual conference devoted to “ideas worth spreading” taking place in Tanzania this week, heard of new technologies that could revolutionise health care for the poor.

Algorithms to detect diseases

Infectious diseases are fast being overtaken by afflictions such as cancer as the biggest health problems in Africa, where some countries have only one pathologist per one million people.

Sierra Leonean roboticist David Sengeh believes training more specialists is not enough, and is working with his team at IBM Africa on artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that can predict a cancer’s progression.

Medical student designs seizure alarm system out of love for his grandma ... and for just US$75

AI software can be trained with a database of images to detect colour changes inside the cervix that point to patients at high risk for cervical cancer, which can be treated if caught in time, but which kills 60,000 women in Africa a year.

Addressing a similar problem, Pratik Shah of MIT has developed a system to use simple cellphone or camera pictures – instead of expensive MRI or CAT scans – to identify biomarkers that point to oral cancer.

While AI systems typically need tens of thousands of data points to function, Shah has found a way to use only 50 images to train algorithms to identify a specific disease.

“We believe our approach could be used to massively reduce the amount of data an AI algorithm currently consumes, and empower physicians to diagnose patients using simple images,” he says.

Both Shah and Sengeh are new members of the TED Fellows Programme, which aims to spread young innovators’ ideas.

Tweets about TEDGlobal2017

‘Eye-phones’ and mobile hearing

More than 1.1 billion people worldwide live with hearing loss – half of which is preventable, according to the World Health Organisation.

American ear surgeon Susan Emmett said most of these are in low and middle-income countries where traditional hearing tests are a challenge. Malawi, for example, has only two ear surgeons and 11 audiologists.

Emmett is testing South African-developed mobile screening technology in rural Alaskan communities that has replaced the need for an audiologist, permanent equipment and a soundproof room.

How new technology for elderly care can enhance safety in Hong Kong homes

The technology costs one-tenth of traditional solutions and uses noise-isolating headphones and an adaptor attached to a mobile phone to examine a patient’s ears.

Another speaker, Kyle DeCarlo, who is deaf, has developed a semi-transparent surgical mask so deaf patients in hospitals can read their doctors’ lips.

A video showed eye surgeon Andrew Bastawrous’ Rolex Award-winning Peek, an “eye-phone”, or smartphone app he developed for use in Kenya. It uses a low-cost, clip-on device to take images of the back of the eye to test sight.

Drone blood delivery

In Rwanda, a system launched last year to fly blood via drones from a central distribution centre to hospitals around the hilly nation has saved numerous lives, says robotics entrepreneur Keller Rinaudo, whose company Zipline runs the system.

The drones drops packs of blood by parachute, delivering 20 per cent of the blood supplied outside the capital, Kigali.

In one case a 24-year old woman bleeding heavily after childbirth was saved after several emergency flights in a row delivered more blood than is contained in one human body.

Last week, Tanzania’s health ministry announced it would use the same drone technology to deliver medical products from four distribution centres, in what is set to be the largest autonomous delivery system in the world.