Interview of July 18, 2007 with Dr. Birgit Teichmann
You are known for your statements regarding life expectancy. Is there a limit? Do you believe that life expectancy may go beyond 120 years keeping in mind the telomere shortening?
I don't think there is any limit in sight. Life expectancy in Germany is now around 80 years and I expect the life expectancy to increase by about 2 to 3 years per decade. Record life expectancy has gone from 45 to 85 during the past 160 years, so maybe over the next 160 years it will go from 80 to 120 in Germany, it is the same 40 years. Concerning telomeres, it is true that older people have on average shorter telomeres than younger people. As far as I know, nobody has died of short telomeres. There may be some limit that is imposed by the shortening of telomeres, but I think this limit is well beyond anything we can foresee, well beyond age 100. There will be diseases and disabilities that arise because of short telomeres, but it will be decades before life expectancy exceeds 100 years and maybe by then we can do something about short telomeres.
Why is the increase of life expectancy in Europe different from the USA. Any explanation?
This is a real puzzle because the United States is the world leader in so many things, including research on aging. I used to think that progress was slow in the U.S. because of the changing ethnic and racial mix. But if you look at native born white women, white women that were born in the United States, their life expectancy has not increased since 1980, including in the older ages. In order to achieve a high level of life expectancy, everybody has to have good life chances. Well educated Americans with good income take care of their health and probably live as long as Europeans do. However, there are a lot of poorly educated people, even among native born whites that are bringing the average down. What are these people doing to shorten their life expectancy? One thing is that they are eating bad diets, they are overweight, many of them are obese, they don't get proper exercise, they smoke too much, even though smoking has gone way down in the United States, so some combination of poor education, lack of good income, and not taking proper care of yourself, contributes to a low life expectancy in the United States.
The increase of life expectancy is a great challenge for politicians, medical doctors and scientists. What do you think is the greatest challenge?
I think all three of these are big challenges. The major challenge for politicians and for society is the need to incorporate older people into society. A new culture needs to be developed that includes older people. In particular, new policies should be developed that allow older people to work longer, policies that encourage redistribution of work from younger people to older people. More generally, older people need to be more accepted in society: society should embrace the older population. Population aging is also a major challenge for medical doctors because old people require more medical care than younger people do. To have a healthier older population more medical research has to be done, for instance on Alzheimer disease, arthritis, heart disease, cancer and other causes of disability and death among older people. Furthermore, older people need help so that they can continue to live in their own houses or apartments, that they can still go shopping for themselves, and that they can continue to take care of themselves.
According to your publications, Prof. Beyreuthers 1 year old granddaughter has a life expectancy of about 100 years. How much time do you think we have to improve quality of life for this child and for the last 20 years of her life, given the fact that people in their 80s are multimorbid and have 5 disease processes running.
For his granddaughter, if she is one year old now, it will be 79 years before she is 80 and it seems that in the next 79 years, medical researchers will be able to treat and prevent Alzheimer disease and other kinds of dementia. Sometimes medical researchers think we may have a scientific breakthrough tomorrow or within the next 5 years, but for his granddaughter, we don't need the breakthrough tomorrow, we need it within the next 79 years. The fact that old people suffer from several different co-morbilities is actually a reason for optimism. If people are suffering from five different diseases or disabilities and you can eliminate one of them, then you can eliminate the 4 interactions of that morbidity with the other morbidities.
In the recent past we read in the newspaper that Alzheimer patients are increasing from 26 mio today to 104 mio worldwide in 2050. Would you justify publishing this data, which does not consider advances in research and prevention?
This is a very misleading projection. If you are looking people in their 80's and 90's, the people who most often suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, the population of such people will multiply over coming decades. By 2050 the population may be four times as big as today. If the incidence of Alzheimer is the same as today, then you will have four times as many Alzheimer patients. But it is very misleading just to modify the number by four. There will be advances in postponing Alzheimer’s disease. There may be a vaccine developed to help prevent Alzheimer’s. There may be effective treatments. Furthermore, educated people suffer less Alzheimer’s disease than poorly educated people—and the people who are elderly in 2050 will be better educated than the people who are elderly today.
How do you prepare your own future?
I try to keep myself as healthy as possible by exercising, eating a healthy diet, drinking some wine, but not too much, and having fun, but not too much. I also try to keep active. I very much enjoy being a researcher and so I hope to stay active for many years and to continue to contribute to research. I would like to work at least until I am 80 years old. This gives me some prospects for the future and this makes the future more interesting and exciting. Younger people can make some kinds of contributions—and older people can make other kinds of contribution. With age, you gain wisdom experience and judgement. I think my ability to contribute to research today is at least as great as it was 20 years ago. So I think it is possible for me to enjoy a healthy and productive future.
James Vaupel, born in 1945 in New York, but his family's roots are a
mixture of German, Swedish, English and French. He studied mathematical statistics, business administration, and public policy at Harvard University, where he received his BA in 1967 and his Ph.D. in 1978. He has taught at Duke University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Southern Denmark, and the University of Rostock, Germany.
James Vaupel ist the Founding Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock. He is also Chaiman of the Board of Directors of Duke University´s Population Research Institute. In addition to being a member of the Max Planck Society, he is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He is married, has two daugthers and lives in Denmark.