The maximum life span is a theoretical number whose exact value cannot be determined from existing knowledge about an organism; it is often given as a rough estimate based on the longest lived organism of its species known to date. A more meaningful measure is the average life span; this is a statistical concept that is derived by the analysis of mortality data for populations of each species. A related term is the expectation of life. Life expectancy represents the average number of years that a group of persons, all born at the same time, might be expected to live, and it is based on the changing death rate over many past years.
The concept of life span implies that there is an individual whose existence has a definite beginning and end. What constitutes the individual in most cases presents no problem: among organisms that reproduce sexually the individual is a certain amount of living substance capable of maintaining itself alive and endowed with hereditary features that are in some measure unique. In some organisms, however, extensive and apparently indefinite growth takes place and reproduction may occur by division of a single parent organism, as in many protists, including bacteria, algae, and protozoans. In order to consider life span in such organisms, the individual must be defined arbitrarily since the organisms are continually dividing. In a strict sense, the life spans in such instances are not comparable to those forms that are sexually produced.
There is a brief period during which it is impossible to say whether an organism is still alive, but this time is so short relative to the total length of life that it creates no great problem in determining life span.
Some organisms seem to be potentially immortal. Unless an accident puts an end to life, they appear to be fully capable of surviving indefinitely. This faculty has been attributed to certain fishes and reptiles, which appear to be capable of unlimited growth. Without examining the various causes of death in detail, a distinction can be made between death as a result of internal changes (i.e., aging) and death as a result of some purely external factor, such as an accident. It is notable that the absence of aging processes is correlated with the absence of individuality. In other words, organisms in which the individual is difficult to define, as in colonial forms, appear not to age.