Jeanne Calment is well known as the longest-lived person, with her age at death validated at 122 years. The data for supercentenarians, the exceptionally rare individuals who live to be 110 years of age or older, is very ragged. This is usually the case at the far outside end of a distribution, where the total number of data points is very low. It is usual to find outliers, but some people feel that Jeanne Calment is too much of an outlier given the other validated ages of death for supercentenarians. Only one other person lived to be 119, and no-one else is known to have made it past 117. The yearly mortality rates for supercentenarians appear to be 50% or greater, though it is hard to be exact given the very sparse data. The odds of finding people just a few years older diminish precipitously given that level of risk.
So what is more likely: that Jeanne Calment was the furthest outlier, or that the validation process was flawed, and she was in fact significantly younger? We would be very skeptical of anyone claiming to be 125. Should we be more skeptical of the existing claim of 122 years of age? This sort of discussion is an interesting one, as illustrated by the article here, but whether or not Jeanne Calment did die aged 122 will soon enough become of little importance to the world at large. With the advent of low cost rejuvenation therapies in the form of senolytic drugs, the environment of aging will change rapidly in the decade ahead. The use of these treatments will spread widely through the population. Other rejuvenation therapies will soon follow, amplifying the effects. Remaining life span in later life will be increasingly determined by technology and ever less by genetic resilience and chance.
If you open an article dedicated to supercentenarians, it is very likely that at its very beginning, you will see the name of Jeanne Calment, the oldest known person in the world, who is believed to have lived for up to 122 years. Jeanne is not merely a unique phenomenon from the point of view of statistics; over the years, she became a symbol of extraordinary human capacities. A couple of weeks ago a report shed new light on the case of Jeanne Calment. The main hypothesis of this independent investigation is that the person who we know as Jeanne Calment is actually her daughter, Yvonne, who took the place of her mother after her death in 1934 in order to help her family avoid heavy financial losses related to inheritance. The initiator of this independent investigation, Valery Novoselov, is convinced that Calment's case has to be revalidated.
Valery, you are currently involved in revalidating longevity records. What was your motivation to engage in these investigations in the first place?
My main focus of interest is people. I don't like to deal with animals, because I believe that due to evolutionary mechanisms, the processes of aging in different species are not homologous. So, I am only interested in analyzing human data with some practical application of the results. Back in 2016, I was curious how many centenarians there were in the Moscow region. The Department of Labor and Social Security and the Federal Agency of Statistics provided me with two absolutely different sets of data. The one from the agency gave me 4135 people aged 100 and older, and the Department of Labor gave me 735 people. 6-fold difference. The main idea here is this: too much variance of data is likely an indicator of errors. In centenarians, the possibility of error is the highest.
What was the starting point in the investigation of Jeanne Calment's case? What was the first thing that caused the initial skepticism?
In the last few years, there were many interesting articles on the survival curve of centenarians and supercentenarians. Despite their differing views on the survival plateaus of marginal age groups, the case of Jeanne Calment didn't fit into any of the refined math models behind their studies. If we imagine the curves of survival in these studies, Jeanne is a dot away from the main trend that they describe. One more reason for suspicion is how far from other longevity records her age is. All other supercentenarians are several years apart from them. Most longevity records are very close to one another. Whenever a new record is set, the person dies several days or several weeks later, very rarely several months later. However, we are never speaking about years apart, definitely not several years.
So, you started to check the data from this validation group?
I had many ideas at once. I am a geriatrician, and in my work, I rely on visual assessment a lot. My eyes were telling me that Jeanne didn't have the hallmarks of frailty that would correspond to her official age, such as the fact that unlike other supercentenarians, she was able to sit straight in her chair without others' help. I didn't see enough signs of dermal atrophy nor atrophy of subcutaneous tissue. As a first step, I decided to run a survey to see how people assessed Jeanne's age by comparing her photos and videos to the photos and videos of other supercentenarians. The participants (233 random people) were massively reducing her age by around 20-25 years compared to her official age on the date when this picture was taken. The more that we checked, the more that small inconsistencies, errors, and even signs of intentional fraud were revealed. After looking at all the data that we has managed to collect, including the known intentional destruction of the family archive, we developed a hypothesis that is now being checked. In 1934, there was a death in the Calment family. The official story is that in 1934, Jeanne had lost her only daughter, Yvonne. We think that in reality it was Jeanne who had died, aged almost 59, and her daughter took her name and personality.
It is nice to learn that the community is open to the idea of revalidation.
Indeed. However, I am asking myself why the revalidation was not initiated earlier, as the more you dig, the more questions arise. The main lesson of this is still to be learned, however. You see, the current buzz around longevity records can be easily distracting us from the goals that are truly important. I'd really want this story to be reduced to a revalidation by a qualified group of researchers and to an update of all corresponding books. In my view, it just does not deserve the hype. There was a mistake, we will correct it, and that is it. We will be seeing new longevity records again and again; it will never stop, because there is no proven limit of human healthspan and lifespan.