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Do Our Odds of Dying Ever Stop Increasing With Age? Scientists Disagree

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As we get older, our chances of dying go up. To that, you might say, well, duh. But, when we hit around 80 years old or so, a funny thing seems to happen: Our odds of dying stop increasing and instead start leveling out. So you’ve got the same shot — about 50/50 — of croaking at, say, 110 (an age that would classify you as a so-called supercentenarian) as you would at 95.

It’s an odd phenomenon that’s left experts puzzled for years. Researchers have floated many theories to try and explain it. For instance, some think maybe there’s some evolutionary quirk that allows this to happen. Others posit that maybe there’s some cellular funniness afoot, allowing people of extreme old age to somehow accumulate damage more slowly in their cells.

But some experts contend that maybe, this human mortality plateau isn’t happening at all. A new paper in PLOS Biology argues that most — if not all — of the proposed observations of so-called late-life mortality plateaus could be chalked up to scientific error.

The Illusion of Age Plateaus 

Saul Newman, a postdoc in machine learning and wheat genomics at the Australian National University in Canberra, is the sole author of the report. He argues that the aging plateaus researchers have documented in the past can be explained by a combination of errors related to the data sets they’ve used. Erroneous age reporting is one factor that could skew data. For example, he says in his paper, back in World War I, roughly 250,000 people in the U.K. reported being older than they were in order to join the fight.

But it seems the factors that can distort aging trends the most are the demographics researchers target for their studies and the accuracy of birth and death records they use.

Newman writes that our understanding of aging trends often relies on records from more than 90 years ago, which may not be all that reliable. In fact, even today, there are areas where record-keeping has some catching up to do; more than a third of global births still remain unreported. In some countries, there’s not even enough data to estimate births with any accuracy. Even in developed countries, he argues there aren’t any populations with accurate record-keeping big enough to examine late-life aging trends.

Still, it’s the records from those developed countries that underscore the point he’s trying to make. When you’re looking at populations where record-keeping is the strongest and most robust, the odds of late-life mortality plateaus occurring shrinks.

To demonstrate his claims, Newman used demographic data from international databases — including the U.N.’s World Population Prospects and the Human Mortality Database, maintained by teams from the University of California Berkeley and The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research — to run his own statistical analysis. Essentially, he took this data and assumed that aging plateaus don’t exist and that instead, our mortality rates continue to increase as we age. Then, he introduced errors, such as ages being recorded incorrectly, into that data. He found that even when error rates were as low as one in 10,000, that was still enough to produce late-life mortality plateaus.

It’s “a blindingly simple explanation,” he says. “Until we have the human equivalent of tree-rings, an unforgeable measure of human age,” he writes in a follow-up email, “these data will remain dubious at best. Without a real, biological metric of human age, we cannot discriminate bureaucratic error from reality.”

A Push for Better Data

But Kenneth Wachter, a demographer and statistician at the University of California, Berkeley, argues Newman’s paper has its limits.

Though he concedes that many of the data sets that have been available can be laden with errors, he says researchers are working to change that. “Newman’s point really applies more to the official statistics that people have had to rely on, before big investments were made in individual age validation,” he says. “The new works that are coming out are really aimed at getting around the kinds of problems that Newman is featuring.”

He points to a study of his own, published in Science in June, which Newman has also criticized in a separate commentary released along with his PLOS Biology paper.

This Science paper relied on records from nearly 4,000 Italians, all of whom were confirmed to be 105 years old or older when the study was being conducted. That data was from the Italian National Institute of Statistics, which required that birth and death certificates be provided for everyone included in the sample. According to Wachter, the way those records were kept means the possibility of clerical errors is low. “Their birth records were kept in local municipalities in bound volumes, one volume for each year. So, a person who appears in the register for 1900 can’t have been born in 1910, the way Newman’s hypothetical model would say. In other kinds of studies, which are based simply on ages that people say they are, you can have the kinds of errors that Newman has hypothesized. Lots of people say they’re older than they are.”

A Fuzzy Future

Their argument underscores the tug of war that’s been ongoing and which has ramped up in recent years.

“It’s a big question,” Wachter says. But he’s optimistic about the future. He says the results that he and his team found “suggest flexibility in lifespans” and that “we haven’t seen all the progress that’s possible.”

Newman, though, is more cautious. “People have had this false dichotomy where they think that, oh there’s a limit, or there’s no limit, and it’s that simple,” he says. But he suspects it’s more nuanced. “There’s not one limit to human life. There’s a different limit to human life depending on where you’re from, what environment you grew up in, what time period you’re from and also what gender you are.”

He also thinks researchers’ time would be better spent digging into typical aging. “I would argue for less research on supercentenarians,” he writes in an email. “It is just unreliable data. That is not to say I think this research is not important. Instead, we must focus … on the ordinary aging of ordinary people.”

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Ecology

Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science

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YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Ecology

Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth

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Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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Ecology

COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0

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We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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