Limits on Lifetimes


, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 1-15

First online:

Ever since gompertz

  • S. Jay OlshanskyAffiliated withDepartment of Medicine, University of Chicago Email author 
  • , Bruce A. CarnesAffiliated withArgonne National Laboratory

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In 1825 British actuary Benjamin Gompertz made a simple but important observation that a law of geometrical progression pervades large portions of different tables of mortality for humans. The simple formula he derived describing the exponential rise in death rates between sexual maturity and old age is commonly referred to as the Gompertz equation—a formula that remains a valuable tool in demography and in other scientific disciplines. Gompertz’s observation of a mathematical regularity in the life table led him to believe in the presence of a law of mortality that explained why common age patterns of death exist. This law of mortality has captured the attention of scientists for the past 170 years because it was the first among what are now several reliable empirical tools for describing the dying-out process of many living organisms during a significant portion of their life spans. In this paper we review the literature on Gompertz’slaw of mortality and discuss the importance of his observations and insights in light of research on aging that has taken place since then.