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Time between birth and death. It ranges from a mayfly's day to certain trees' thousands of years. Its limit appears to depend on heredity, but such factors as (in humans) disease, natural disasters, war, diet, and habits such as smoking reduce it. Maximum life span is theoretical; more meaningful is average life span, which life-insurance companies and actuaries analyze and tabulate. Long-lived progenitors tend to beget long-lived descendants. A very-low-calorie diet appears to prolong life. Reduced infant mortality and improved sanitation and nutrition account for much of the increase since c. 1800from about 35 to over 70 years in most industrialized countries. The oldest well-documented age reached by a human is 122 years.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on life span, visit Britannica.com.