Some people think our hunter-gatherer ancestors only lived to 40 years of age and that our modern technology, plentiful food and medical and social systems have increased our longevity. In some ways this is true, but there is more to the story.
Maximum longevity is coded in the genes of each species. Dogs can live for at least 29 years, cats have been known to live until 36 years, while swans can live to 102 years in captivity. Human longevity is also coded in our genes and since science has established that our DNA has not changed for about 250,000 years, there is a strong argument that human longevity was set then.Black swan
So where does the idea come from, that our hunter-gatherer ancestors only lived for about four decades? First of all, we need to distinguish that maximum longevity and average longevity are different. Maximum longevity is determined by the genetic ability to stay alive, while average longevity reflects a population’s susceptibility to disease, accident, suicide and homicide. The term maximum longevity is the maximum age to which an individual of a species has lived. The oldest human on record was Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died in 1997 at the age of 122 years. She rode a bicycle until the age of 100 and once met Vincent Van Gogh in her father’s painting studio. Another term sometimes used is potential longevity. It is considered to be the age to which the top 10 per cent of a species lives. Human potential longevity has been between 95 and 108 years throughout recorded history. This has not varied despite steady improvements in the average longevity within civilised countries over the past 200 years.
The term average longevity is determined by the age to which 50 per cent of a population live and is strongly dependent on environmental conditions. These include physical conditions such as shelter, exposure to chemicals, pathogens and predators, the availability of food and water, and family and social living. When these conditions are optimal, a person has a higher chance of surviving infections, emotional stress, poisoning, and physical trauma etc. But when environmental conditions vary too far from the ideal to which humans are genetically adapted, fewer people reach the average longevity, let alone the potential longevity.
The average longevity of traditional hunter-gathers living 250,000 years ago has been estimated at 70 years in optimal living conditions (less in marginal areas) and a potential longevity in excess of 100 years of age. The average longevity fell much lower however to about 40 years of age when hunter-gatherers were forced to live in less than optimal physical/emotional/pathogen environments, as civilisation and agriculture spread throughout the world. It is interesting to note that when agriculture originally developed in the Middle East about 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, the average longevity of hunter-gatherers who took up farming fell from about 70 years of age to about 50 years of age (or less). As the lifestyle of agricultural and civil living spread to other regions of the world, the average longevity in these regions also fell and remained at about 40 to 50 years of age until industrialisation was introduced to each region.
The industrial and technological revolutions throughout the world over the past 200 years have generated economic growth and increased income for the average working person. These have created technological innovation in hygiene, disease control, building design, city planning, water purity, food production, manufacturing, transportation, communications, energy generation, social interaction and others. In general, technology has created predictability and allowed people to live in environments more similar to those to which humans are genetically adapted. These improved social, mental and physical environments have created an increased sense of wellbeing, freedom and control for the average person and have increased average longevity, which reached 81 years of age in the 1990s, in technologically advanced countries.
Over the past 60 years however, the rapid acceleration in world population growth, the interests of some large multinational companies, some questionable technology, and the need for ‘bigger, better, greater and more’, have created mental and physical environments that are beginning to degrade the quality of more and more people’s lives. Some of our technology and industries are starting to work against our health. The increasing occurrence of chronic obesity, type-1 allergies, depression, cancer and autoimmune diseases are a reflection of this degradation. It appears the average longevity has peaked and is now decreasing.
So with these modern challenges, how do we give ourselves the best chance of reaching our potential longevity? Each person has this coded in their genes. Since the average longevity is 81 years of age, then most of us can expect we have the potential to live at least until that age. But as we have seen over the centuries, reaching old age with good health is dependent on environmental conditions and how we adapt to these. You can give yourself a better chance of living beyond the average longevity (with good mental and physical health) if you learn how to deal with today’s societal problems such as detrimental technology, pollution, emotional stress and unhealthy foods. As a biologist specialising in human ecology I have spent decades developing skills and techniques to improve the mental and physical quality of people’s lives to do just this. I have created a series of workshops where you can discover life-changing self-care tools to give you this edge.