By Robert Hickson 17/04/2017

The oldest person in the world has died, aged 117. Life expectancy in Italy in 1899 when she was born was 44 years. She wasn’t the oldest; the current record is 122.

NZ’s oldest living person is 109, although the oldest so far reached 113 years.

Life expectancy in New Zealand has, as elsewhere, risen dramatically over the last century and a half. Average lifespan has nearly doubled. That is spectacular.

Source: Statistics NZ


Maori and Pacific people have on average shorter lives, although the differences have been decreasing.

 Source: Statistics NZ


Better healthcare, sanitation, diet, and economic circumstances are key factors in improving lifespan over the last century. Reduced heart disease and declining incidence of infectious diseases explain much of the decline in deaths over the last few decades. Similar patterns are seen in New Zealand.

With advances in cancer diagnoses and treatments  its role in mortality also looks to be declining.

These successes required, and will continue to require, scientific, social, economic, and political developments.


Facing the future

Paul Spoonley wrote earlier this year about NZ’s demographic disruption – the ageing population and the potential for population stagnation. He also noted the lack of action to address the changes that these may create.

Will technological and policy developments enable NZ to maintain a relatively high standard of living, and an equitable country? We aren’t seeing much sign of that at the moment.

Geoffrey Palmer commented in his excellent candid interview for “The ninth floor” on RNZ that politicians aren’t facing the future challenges. He noted that New Zealand, as I suspect most countries do, goes through periodic bouts of vigorous reform punctuated by long periods of “sleep”.

That’s not acceptable in the current environment of substantial, rapid and multiple changes that we face.

Looking at the local rather than the national, it is though encouraging to see that volunteer organisations such as WeVisit are taking a lead in helping connect skills and knowledge across generations.  It also dispels the silly simple characterisations of different population cohorts pitted against each other in generational battles.

Hacking death

Some hope or believe that we’ll soon avoid mortality. These transhumanists who want to engineer away death still have a long way to go. In a review of Mark O’Connell’s book To be a machine John Gray notes that transhumanists, while lamenting the degradation of human bodies, appear to have unreasonable faith in the longevity and resilience of infrastructure and social systems to maintain them:

Every technology requires a physical infrastructure in order to operate. But this infrastructure depends on social institutions, which are frequently subject to breakdown.

Gray also notes that transhumanism isn’t new, or particularly scientific:

At bottom, the transhumanist movement is a modern variant of the mystical dream of transcending contingency – the vulnerability that comes with being subject to accident and the power of events – that possessed many in ancient times.

So, as some contemplate death and resurrection this weekend, we shouldn’t forget the incremental and less miraculous steps that have brought us to where we are. The focus needs to remain on living well and sustainably now, rather than seeking a mythical technological transcendence.


Featured image: Detail from The Seven Ages of Man, German, 1482, British Museum. Courtesy of Wikimedia.