How we know the oldest person who ever lived wasn’t faking her age (2022)

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What if Jeanne Calment, the oldest person who ever lived, lied about her age? What if she wasn’t an astounding 122 years old when she died, but a lowly 99 because she wasn’t even Jeanne Calment?

Such is the theory of Russian mathematician Nikolay Zak, and it has everything: world records, statistics-defying long life, identity theft, tax evasion, and researchers duking it out with each other. In a paper posted to the research-sharing site ResearchGate, Zak claims that Calment actually died at age 59 in 1934, at which point her daughter Yvonne assumed her mother’s identity to avoid paying inheritance taxes. That would have meant that “Jeanne” was not even a century old when she died in 1997.

If true, the Calment story would be a truly spectacular case of fraud; even just the theory has captured international attention. And the same month that Zak released his findings, the journal PLOS Biology published a paper arguing that some exciting conclusions from aging research are caused by statistical error (from bad data if not outright fraud). So how do we know that Calment didn’t lie about her age? How do we know for sure how old anyone is?

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The Calment controversy has demographers and non-demographers making different claims. It’s also a case of establishment science versus a less-supported but more titillating hypothesis. Though there continues to be back-and-forth, experts say that, most likely, Jeanne Calment is who she said she was: a woman from the southern French town of Arles who met van Gogh, rode a bike until she was 100, and smoked two cigarettes a day until a few years before she died at 122.

Humans want to know how to live forever — or at least for a little while longer. That’s why people click on headlines about chocolate being the secret to a 102-year-old woman’s longevity even while knowing that, come on, chocolate is not the secret. Spurious connections aside, the past century has seen a big increase in the frequency of really old people surviving, and scientists are still debating the limits of the human lifespan.

Being able to accurately predict how many people will live to very old age is a “really important societal question,” says Daniel Promislow, a gerontologist at the University of Washington who was not involved with either of the recent papers. For example, an accurate understanding of these numbers will affect how much social support we’re going to need for the elderly, and that research would not be very useful if all of these 115-year-olds were actually much younger.

This is exactly what could be happening, says Saul Newman. Newman, a postdoctoral fellow at Australian National University who studies wheat genomics using machine learning, wrote the recent PLOS Biology paper casting doubt on longevity claims. Fraud or bad intentions aren’t necessary. Discrepancies could be as simple as a misrecorded birthdate, especially given that today’s supercentenarians (or people over 110 years old) were born in a time with lower literacy rates and less detailed record-keeping. And because there are so few supercentenarians to begin with, you only need tiny mistakes to throw off calculations and create dramatic statistical results.

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Newman says statistical errors undermine the findings of two high-profile (and dueling) papers on the lifespan debate. One, published in Nature in 2016, suggests a maximum lifespan for humans of around 115. The other, published in Science in 2018, claims there might not be such a maximum. As a general rule, the longer we live, the more likely we are to die. The Science paper — which studied 4,000 Italians over the age of 105 — claims that after that age, the chances of dying actually level off, creating a so-called mortality plateau. The possibility of bad data means both of these papers are statistically flawed, Newman says, adding, “For 20 years, scientists have been fighting over an error distribution.”

Yet Kenneth Wachter, a demographer at UC Berkeley and co-author on the Science study, argues that Newman’s critiques are based on a hypothetical model and don’t take into account the actual data the team used. “We have birth certificates matched to age reports and death certificates,” Wachter says. “He has a theoretical exercise, but it’s not one that applies to our data.”

That’s not good enough, Newman replies. “That’s based on the idea that official documentation can never be wrong, and we know that’s not true. How many times are you in the DMV and they’ve made an error?”

So who’s correct?

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These ideas aren’t entirely contradictory, says Dmitri A. Jdanov, a mathematician at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research who specializes in data collection and processing for the International Database on Longevity. The issue that Newman raises is real, but it’s not new. Demographers have long known that misreporting can create a lot of errors that throw off analyses. Books such as Validation of Exceptional Longevity, Exceptional Longevity: From Prehistory to the Present and Supercentenarians all deal with this methodological question. According to Jdanov, massive errors do exist in population data, but such errors are far, far less likely in the very carefully checked data about supercentenarians.

Demographers at the International Database of Longevity start by requesting data from a national statistical office about all people in the country who died at, say, age 110 and older. (It’s hard to get information about people who are still alive because of privacy laws.) Then, they take every case and send messages to the person’s birthplace, get the original birth certificate and baptism record, census records, and more. “They track this person throughout their whole life,” says Jdanov. “All official documents, marriage certificates, birth certificates of children. It’s a huge amount of work with archives, and it certainly needs a lot of resources.” There is a chance that a birth certificate can be wrong, but the chance that every single piece of archival information throughout someone’s life is wrong is much lower.

As Wachter says, mistakes are possible — no one will ever claim that these methods are infallible — but the rates of error that Newman suggests are unlikely given how carefully a lot of this data is validated. Demographers are aware of the statistical issues surrounding claims of old age, and they try to take every precaution possible to avoid it.

All of which brings us back to Calment. Some scientists have lauded Zak’s imposter theory, but Jdanov is skeptical. Zak’s paper hasn’t been accepted for publication in a journal, “and I am almost sure that it will not pass any real scientific review,” he says. It’s not even the first time people have suspected Jeanne Calment of not being Jeanne Calment.

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Zak’s arguments aren’t persuasive, Jdanov says. For example, Zak begins the paper by claiming the probability that she’d be able to reach this age is very low. “Well yes,” says Jdanov. “That’s right, the probability is extremely low, but extremely low probability and impossible are two different words.”

Other arguments are based on tiny inconsistencies. One piece of evidence is that a Facebook poll of 224 people reported that Calment didn’t look that old. In another instance, as the National Post pointed out, the fact that Calment “hated socialists” is used as an example of motive for identity theft and tax evasion. Most plausibly, Calment destroyed many of her personal papers. Still, speaking to Reuters, Zak, who is not a demographer, said that he has lots of small pieces of evidence but not “cast-iron proof.”

Meanwhile, French gerontologist Jean-Marie Robine worked extensively with Calment to catch potential inconsistencies, even asking and verifying details like the name of housekeepers in her building. Not just her family, but the entire city of Arles would have needed to keep the conspiracy going. “Can you imagine how many people would have lied? Overnight, Fernand Calment [Jeanne’s husband] would have passed his daughter for his wife and everyone would have kept silent?” Robine told Le Parisien. “It is staggering. All of this is incredibly shaky and rests on nothing.”

Jdanov sums his position up elegantly: “I see on the one hand a very prominent researcher who did a lot of work over the case, and from the other side, I see a guy whose first argument is that the probability is very low, the second argument is mostly about photos, and he also wrote that he’s not a professional in this area.”

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Newman isn’t convinced and argues that we need to move away from using documents at all. “What we need is a way of biologically measuring how old someone is,” he says, “something that can’t be forged, that can’t be accidentally swapped or taken over by a sibling.”

A biological method of age verification doesn’t really exist yet, says Craig Atwood, a gerontologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When it comes to identity theft, you could do whole-genome sequencing of someone at birth and at death. If that data matched perfectly, it would at least show that the two were the same person. With this method, you’d basically have to start sequencing babies now.

The way Atwood sees it, the fraud theories might be intriguing, but such cases don’t have much effect when it comes to our hope of living longer. “From a scientific perspective, whether Jeanne Calment lived to 122 or 110 or 112, we’re talking about extreme outliers from the curve,” he says. That’s not quite relevant to understanding what makes the body age and how to change or delay that process. “It’s so far away from the biological underpinnings of what’s driving the aging process,” he says. “I just don’t know that it’s going to help us get to where we need to go in terms of researching longevity.”

FAQs

What is the oldest verified age of a person? ›

The oldest person ever whose age has been independently verified is Jeanne Calment (1875–1997) of France, who lived to the age of 122 years and 164 days. The oldest verified man ever is Jiroemon Kimura (1897–2013) of Japan, who lived to the age of 116 years and 54 days.

Who is the oldest person in the world right now 2021? ›

With the passing of Japan's Kane Tanaka at the age of 119 this week, the title of 'oldest living human' has been bequeathed to the French born Lucile Randon.

Who lived until 122 years old? ›

Jeanne Calment

How old is the oldest dog? ›

The greatest reliable age recorded for a dog is 29 years 5 months for an Australian cattle-dog named Bluey, owned by Les Hall of Rochester, Victoria, Australia. Bluey was obtained as a puppy in 1910 and worked among cattle and sheep for nearly 20 years before being put to sleep on 14 November 1939.

Who was the oldest woman to give birth? ›

Erramatti Mangayamma at age 74 gave birth to twins in India last week after becoming pregnant through IVF, making her the oldest person ever to give birth, according to her doctors, and reigniting debate over so-called geriatric pregnancies.

Is anyone from 1800s alive? ›

Italian Emma Morano, born on November 29, 1899, is now the last living person officially recognised to have been born in the 1800s.

Who's the oldest person in the Bible? ›

In the Bible

According to the Bible, Methuselah died the year of the flood but the Bible does not record whether he died during or prior to the flood. He was also the oldest of all the figures mentioned in the Bible.

What is the oldest language in the world? ›

World's oldest language is Sanskrit. The Sanskrit language is called Devbhasha. All European languages ​​seem inspired by Sanskrit. All the universities and educational institutions spread across the world consider Sanskrit as the most ancient language.

Who lived more than 300 years? ›

According to one tradition, Epimenides of Crete (7th, 6th centuries BC) lived nearly 300 years.

Who was the first person to live? ›

The First Humans

One of the earliest known humans is Homo habilis, or “handy man,” who lived about 2.4 million to 1.4 million years ago in Eastern and Southern Africa.

How old is Mbah? ›

Can dogs smell a woman's period? ›

It turns out that both cats and dogs are able to detect menstruation by odor and hormonal levels.

Do cats live longer than dogs? ›

WHEN IT COMES TO OUR PETS, the bigger-is-better theory gets flipped on its ear. Cats live an average of 15 years, compared with about 12 years for dogs, despite generally being smaller. And small dogs can live twice as long as large ones.

What dogs live longest? ›

The smaller breeds of dogs tend to live the longest. Yorkshire terriers, Chihuahuas, Dachshunds, Toy Poodles and Lhasa Apsos are the breeds who typically live the longest with these averaging a lifespan of up to 20 years. This is much higher than the average lifespan of a dog which is between 10 and 13 years.

Can men get pregnant? ›

'" Since 2000, several hoax web sites have appeared on the Internet purporting to describe the world's first pregnant man. While some rely on legitimate scientific claims, no such experiment has ever been reported.

How can I get twins? ›

Twins can occur either when two separate eggs become fertilized in the womb or when a single fertilized egg splits into two embryos. Having twins is more common now than it was in the past. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , twin births have nearly doubled over the last 40 years.

Who's the youngest girl to get pregnant? ›

1939: Lina Medina becomes the youngest confirmed mother in recorded medical history, delivering a son at the age of 5. The Peruvian child delivered a 5-pound, 8-ounce boy via caesarean section; her small pelvis made it impossible for the baby to pass through the birth canal. In a detailed report of the case, Dr.

Who has lived in 3 centuries? ›

The oldest known person in the world has died in New York aged 116. Born on an Alabama farm in July 1899, Susannah Mushatt Jones was also the last living American born in the 19th Century. She lived in three centuries, through two world wars and 20 US presidencies.

Who was the last person born? ›

Emma Morano
Emma Morano Dame Grand Cross OMRI
Resting placeCimitero di Pallanza, Italy
Known forOldest living person (13 May 2016 – 15 April 2017) Oldest verified Italian person ever Last person living verified to have been born in the 1800s
Spouse(s)Giovanni Martinuzzi ​ ​ ( m. 1926; died 1978)​
Children1
3 more rows

Is anyone from 1900 still alive? ›

Born about a month before 1900 began and when England's Queen Victoria was still on the throne, Emma Morano is now the oldest living person.

How old did Adam and Eve live? ›

According to Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve had 56 children. This was possible, in part, because Adam lived to be 930 years old. Some scholars believe that the length of the life spans of the people of this time was due to a vapor canopy in the atmosphere.

Who Wrote the Bible? ›

Even after nearly 2,000 years of its existence, and centuries of investigation by biblical scholars, we still don't know with certainty who wrote its various texts, when they were written or under what circumstances.

How many kids did Adam and Eve have? ›

The book of Genesis mentions three of Adam and Eve's children: Cain, Abel and Seth. But geneticists, by tracing the DNA patterns found in people throughout the world, have now identified lineages descended from 10 sons of a genetic Adam and 18 daughters of Eve.

What language did God speak to Adam? ›

The Adamic language, according to Jewish tradition (as recorded in the midrashim) and some Christians, is the language spoken by Adam (and possibly Eve) in the Garden of Eden.

Who invented language? ›

Who invented language? Language came about and evolved over time in order for humans to survive and develop. It was first invented and used by Homo sapiens, but researchers don't know exactly when. Language likely began somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.

What language did the Jesus speak? ›

Most religious scholars and historians agree with Pope Francis that the historical Jesus principally spoke a Galilean dialect of Aramaic. Through trade, invasions and conquest, the Aramaic language had spread far afield by the 7th century B.C., and would become the lingua franca in much of the Middle East.

How long will humans live in 2050? ›

The Social Security Administration's middle-range forecasts indicate that in 2050 e(0) will be 80.0 and 83.4 years for males and females, respectively (table 2). The Census Bureau (CB) forecasts that in 2050 e(0) for males and females will be 80.9 and 85.3 years, respectively.

Why do we live? ›

We live because we want to find out things, and learn, and become able to do things that we would like to do. We live because others want us to, and we want them to live along with us. We live because we have hope, and want to see what happens next.

Why did Adam live so long? ›

Among the many possible purposes for the prolonged life-span of the ancient patriarchs was the establishment of truth through the Lord's divine law of witnesses.

Who is the 1st person in the world? ›

Adam is the name given in Genesis 1-5 to the first human. Beyond its use as the name of the first man, adam is also used in the Bible as a pronoun, individually as "a human" and in a collective sense as "mankind".

Who was first on earth? ›

The earliest life forms we know of were microscopic organisms (microbes) that left signals of their presence in rocks about 3.7 billion years old. The signals consisted of a type of carbon molecule that is produced by living things.

How can I live to 200? ›

Live 200 Years? This Is How You Could Do It. - YouTube

Is there a 145 year old person? ›

The world's oldest man has been named as Indonesian Mbah Gotho, who is 145 years old, with documentation that says he was born in 1870. Mr Gotho said he began preparing for his death in 1992, even having a gravestone made, but 24 years later he is still alive.

Who lived 145 years? ›

Mbah Gotho

How old is Kane Tanaka? ›

Has anyone lived past 120 years? ›

The oldest known age ever attained was by Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman who died in 1997 at the age of 122. Ms. Calment is also the only documented case of a person living past 120, which many scientists had pegged as the upper limit of the human lifespan.

Who is the oldest person in the world right now 2022? ›

A Venezuelan man has been recorded by the Guinness World Records as the world's oldest living man. As of 17 May 2022, Juan Vincente Mora is a record-breaking 112 years and 355 days old, with his 113th birthday fast approaching.

How old is Kane Tanaka? ›

How long will humans live in 2050? ›

The Social Security Administration's middle-range forecasts indicate that in 2050 e(0) will be 80.0 and 83.4 years for males and females, respectively (table 2). The Census Bureau (CB) forecasts that in 2050 e(0) for males and females will be 80.9 and 85.3 years, respectively.

How old are humans in the Bible? ›

According to the aggregated data, 47% of Americans agree that God created humans pretty much in their present form either exactly as the Bible describes it or within the last 10,000 years.

How old did they live in the Bible? ›

Several parts of the Hebrew Bible, including the Torah, Joshua, Job, and Chronicles, mention individuals with very long lifespans, up to the 969 years of Methuselah.
...
Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)
NameAgeAge
Abraham175175
Nahor148304
Jacob147147
Esau147?147?
36 more rows

Is anyone from 1800s alive? ›

Italian Emma Morano, born on November 29, 1899, is now the last living person officially recognised to have been born in the 1800s.

Who's the oldest person in the Bible? ›

In the Bible

According to the Bible, Methuselah died the year of the flood but the Bible does not record whether he died during or prior to the flood. He was also the oldest of all the figures mentioned in the Bible.

Who lived to be 200 years old? ›

Li Ching-Yuen
Li-Ching Yuen
OccupationHerbalist
Known forExtreme longevity claim and spiritual practices by means of herbs. Oldest person in recorded history (Unverifed)
Height7 ft (2.13 m)
Spouse(s)Wong Mei-Ki (1833–1910)
5 more rows

How old is Japan? ›

Japan: 15 Million Years Old

Japan's first emperor, Jimmu, is reportedly the founder of this country. Japan came into existence in 660 B.C. Buddhism impacted Japanese culture to a large extent, if we go by historical records.

Who died at 119? ›

Tanaka died on April 19 at 119, not far from the now-shuttered base in the southern city of Fukuoka, she was the world's oldest person and had lived seven years longer than the oldest American veteran of World War II. In Japan, which has the world's oldest population, Ms.

Who is the oldest death? ›

Tanaka, who enjoyed board games and maths puzzles, died in hospital in southwestern Japan. Kane Tanaka, a Japanese woman believed to have been the world's oldest person, has died aged 119.

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