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At the time of his death on May 9, 2014, Alexander Imich was the world's oldest man. (© MIKE SEGAR/Reuters/Corbis)

Keeping Track of the Oldest People in the World

The Gerontology Research Group catalogues on all of the world's confirmed supercentenarians, or persons over 110 years old

smithsonian.com

A month or so before he died, Alexander Imich, the world’s oldest man, asked a friend, “How long can this go on?”

The 111 year old—who was born in Poland the year the Wright Brothers first took flight, and survived a stint in a Soviet gulag before immigrating to the United States in 1951—was informed in April that he just became the world’s oldest known living man. In an interview in his New York City apartment, Imich told The New York Times, “I never thought I’d be that old,” though wryly added that it’s “not like it’s the Nobel Prize.” 

Imich only held the title for about a month-and-a-half, however. He died in June, bequeathing the position to Sakari Momoi, a 111-year-old in Japan who was born just a day after Imich, on February 5, 1903. After Imich’s passing, it likely did not take long for the news to reach Momoi.

“Oh yes, people know if they’re next in line,” says L. Stephen Coles, a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-founder of the Gerontology Research Group. Everybody wants to go down in history, he says.

Since 1990, the Gerontology Research Group has assumed the role of record keepers for the world’s supercentenarians, or persons older than 110. Previously, research groups, individual countries and private hobbyists tracked supercentenarians for studies or for census purposes, or simply out of personal interest. But that information was not compiled into a central, standardized database, and it was largely closed to public viewing. “I thought, this ought to be available online, so everyone can know about it,” Coles says.

To fill this need, around 15 years ago Coles and his colleagues began publishing their database online. Most attention falls on one list in particular, which they call “Table E.” Neatly filed in chronological order, Table E contains all of the world’s confirmed, still-living supercentenarians.

In addition to satiating curiosity and providing world-record listings, the Gerontology Research Group’s database also offers scientific insight into the phenomenon of living an exceedingly long life. Expert volunteers with the organization conduct extensive interviews with the people on the list, taking blood samples for DNA analysis from those who are willing. Ultimately, the group’s goal is to use such data to design drugs that will slow down the aging process itself, though such breakthroughs—if even possible—are likely years away.

The team regularly updates the list, and it usually hovers at just over 70 entries—the vast majority of them women. Misao Okawa, born in 1898, currently stands at the top, at 116 years old. (The longest ever-confirmed lifespan belongs to Jeanne Calment, a French woman who passed away in 1997 at the age of 122.)

Uncertainty at the top  

Earning a spot on Table E requires more than just living to see 110, however. Supercentenarians must prove that they have indeed reached that milestone. This is because Coles and his colleagues frequently encounter phony claims. “There are a lot of wannabes,” Coles says. “It’s not bad intent necessarily on the part of the individuals who are old, but of their families saying things like ‘Oh, actually he’s 117.’”

When it comes to age forgery, Coles has seen it all. He recently received a claim from India of an individual who is supposedly 179—a feat that is almost certainly physically impossible. The deceit can be harder to spot, such as the time a man in Turkey tried to pass himself off as his deceased brother, who was ten years older. And in one particularly challenging case, the government of Bolivia issued false documents to a man who was 106, stating that he was 112.

These problems are well known among those who study the very old. “Ninety-eight percent of ages claimed over 115 are false,” says Thomas Perls, a professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston Medical Center, and director of the New England Centenarian Study. Based on a research paper he published on the topic, Perls says that “There’s a total of ten different major reasons why people do this.”

Sometimes, the motivation for lying is monetary. In the U.S., for example, a handful of people inflated their ages in order to claim to be Civil War veterans, giving them access to pensions. Countries and local officials, too, might boast a surplus of centenarians to propagate a “Shangri-La” myth about a particular town or region in an effort to attract tourist dollars. China and Dominica are notorious for this, Perls says. Still others might inflate their ages to validate religious beliefs and recruit followers, such as some swamis from India who say they are 200-plus years old.

In other cases, a government or group might want to demonstrate that theirs is a “superior race,” Perls continues. In the 1950s, for example, the USSR purported that its citizens enjoyed “unrivaled longevity.” The Soviet government insisted that this was especially true for those hailing from the Caucuses—dictator Joseph Stalin’s birthplace—who were said to regularly live into their 140s and 150s.

To ensure people are indeed as old as they say they are (or that their families or governments say they are), the Group subjects each applicant to a process Coles calls postulate evaluation. According to the rules, supercentenarian candidates must present two to three pieces of documentation that proves their age. This includes some sort of documentation that dates back to their original year of birth, such as a birth certificate, baptismal record or notation in a book. Secondly, Coles requires a current photo ID issued by an unbiased government agency. Finally, married women who took their husband’s name must produce an additional document proving that the name-change took place.

For every supercentenarian that the Gerontology Research Group confirms, probably at least one more slips through the cracks. Some families simply prefer to protect their privacy, so they do not reach out to the group. In other cases, the researchers might not have the logistic capacity to investigate every lead. Although the group includes about 40 volunteer correspondents based around the world who are in charge of tracking down supercentenarians in their country or region, sometimes claims prove impossible to follow-up on. For example, Coles recently received an email from a person in Austin stating that two years ago he met a 108-year-old man wearing a funny hat at a local Wal-Mart. “In his email, he said, ‘That man must be 110 years old now, so here’s the address of the Wal-Mart so you can go find him,’” Coles says. “We’re a volunteer organization: we can’t track down those kinds of leads.”

In other cases, individuals who don’t make the cut likely are genuine supercentenarians, but they are unable to provide the documentation to prove it. While Japan has kept scrupulous birth records for more than a century (perhaps partly explaining why that country has so many supercentenarians per capita), other countries have historically been less meticulous about that task. Due to a general lack of written birth records in African nations, for example, Table E includes no one from that massive continent. Similarly, China certainly has many supercentenarians, but none are confirmed because the Chinese government did not track births prior to the early 1900s. India, likewise, did not keep such records until around 1903, when the British began tracking some births there—especially of eldest sons in landowner families. As a result, Coles expects that more and more Indians will join the list as years pass.

For all of these reasons, Coles suspects that the world’s true number of supercentenarians is likely about double what’s contained in Table E, probably hovering at around 150. And it also means that when news wires report the death of “the world’s oldest person,” they may not always be accurate.

Heritable longevity

For now, very few make it to 110. “The probability of getting to be a supercentenarian is about one in seven million,” Coles says, and living beyond that milestone is even more exceptional. A 110-year-old’s odds of seeing her 111th birthday is about 50-50, meaning that living to 113, 114 or 115 is like getting three, four or five heads in a row in a coin toss.

This, of course, leads to the burning question: how do those who make it to 110 and beyond manage that feat?

The short answer is that we do not know. Supercentenarians come from diverse occupations and social backgrounds. Some drink and smoke, while others abstain from the partying lifestyle; some are religious, others atheists; some have rich networks of family and friends, others are virtually on their own. While centenarians tend to cluster in Sardinia, Italy, and Okinawa, Japan, supercentenarians, on the other hand, have no significant association with any particular geographic area.

“I’ve interviewed more supercentenarians than probably anyone else, trying to find out what they have in common,” Coles says. “The answer is almost nothing.”

But as both Coles’ and Perls’ studies on supercentenarians confirm, the one thing that nearly all supercentenarians do have in common is that they have a history of long-lived close relatives. Unlike average longevity, extreme longevity, it seems, largely comes down to genes. “Aging,” Perls says, “is an incredibly heterogeneous trait.”

As he explains, things like diet, exercise, lifestyle and healthcare seem to play a huge role in whether or not someone makes it to their 80s, but by the time they reach their 90s and beyond, those factors become less important. “About 70 percent of average aging is in your hands with health-related behaviors,” Perls says. “But if you get beyond 100, the tables turn and it’s more like 70 percent genetic and 30 percent behaviors.” Women, too, have an obvious edge in this process—female supercentenarians outnumber males about ten-to-one—although scientists have not figured out just why this is so.

Bernice Mason, a 105-year-old woman living in Downey, California, perfectly fits this model, though her journey into extreme longevity came as a surprise. “I had no idea that I’d be around now,” she says. “I don’t think I’d ever cherished the idea, or even gave it a thought. It was an unknown concept in our circle of friends.”

Mason’s mother lived to be 92, however, and one of her grandfathers lived into his late 90s. Her older sister, now 107, is still going strong, too, and recently talked Mason into joining Perls’ New England Centenarian Study. “We can’t see each other any more because she lives in Arizona and neither of us are able to travel,” Mason says. “But we talk on the phone quite often.”

As for whether she’ll make it onto Table E, Mason has no idea. “It’s the Lord’s will,” she says.

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