Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Statistical immortality

Okay: first up, statistical immortality does not mean that you will live forever. But it does open up the possibility for people to live very long lives indeed.

What is statistical immortality? Statistical immortality, as I define it, is where the pace of increase in life expectancy reaches parity - in other words, life expectancy increases by a year every year.

At present, life expectancy is increasing by around one year every three years for those in rich Western nations like Australia. Most of this increase *not* in reduction in infant mortality - we have almost reached the limit of improvement there. Rather, most of it is coming at the other end of life: we are not dying when we used to.

To illustrate exactly what I mean, I will go through an example. Imagine a person who is 60. They have a life expectancy of a further 22.9 years. What this means is that some people of their age will die prior to 82.9 (and some will die before reaching 61!) and some will live longer, but that the average age of death for the group as a whole will be 82.9.

Looking at the table from the ABS, around 53 per cent would still be alive at 82.9. However, let us assume that by the time this cohort was 65, their life expectancy had increased five years to 87.9. Only around 3 per cent of them would be dead at this point. If we take them through five year steps, this pattern repeats, with a small per cent of them dying and the life expectancy of the rest extending further and further into the future.

Even with this small death rate, however, eventually the whole cohort would be dead. But this would take a significant amount of time. From an original cohort of 100,000 at age 60, there would still be around 50,000 alive after 23 steps - 115 years. So we are looking at a median age (the age by which half of them will be dead) of death for this cohort of 197.9.

Now, 197.9 is not immortality. So why would I call it statistical immortality? For two reasons: firstly, if you had an infinitely sized population (mathematicians like infinity) some of that cohort would be expected to survive forever (in fact, an infinite number of them :)); and secondly, this is so far beyond the usual life of a human being that it moves significant numbers of the population (50 per cent of this particular cohort) into a world that we can barely begin to imagine - one in which all sorts of other pathways would almost certainly open up for them.

Returning to climate change, the rapid increases in life expectancy that we are experiencing in the West at present makes it almost certain that, if you are reading this, you will be alive to see some of the worst effects. And then life expectancy may start to drop again ...

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