The all volunteer Gerontology Research Group is a online notable hub for the aging research community, thanks to a mailing list and a few highly connected scientists who keep things running along with a shoestring budget. This article takes a look at the offline work of the organization, the challenging process of accumulating reliable data on survival and mortality in extreme old age:
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. 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.
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. 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.
For now, very few make it to 110. "The probability of getting to be a supercentenarian is about one in seven million," 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. The answer is almost nothing."