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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Miller, MD

Living Longer and Healthier: Part 2. Longevity

Last week, we discussed the term life expectancy and how it is useful in understanding how long a person may live based on various circumstances. Now, in this second of our three-part series, we will meet some of the people who have lived the longest in documented history. This deals with the concept of maximum life span or longevity. Last week, we saw that while a greater portion of the population is living into old age, the maximum length of time humans can possibly live does not appear to be changing. The highest life expectance remains fixed at a 104. Keep in mind that life expectancy, as the name implies, is the age that a person is expected to live to on average. So, when a person is born in the US, the life expectancy for that person is 78. If that same person lives to 78, then their life expectancy at that point is 89. If they make it to 100, then it is 104, but it does not change after that. Part of this is because these are statistics and there aren’t enough people after 100 to make a statistical prediction. The point is that there will always be people who live past the life expectancy. Thus, it is not surprising that there have been people who have lived beyond 104. Who are some of these amazing people?

Jeanne Louise Calment was born on February 21st, 1875 in the town of Arles, Bouches-du-Rhone, France. She lived there her entire life and died on August 4th, 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days making her the oldest documented living person. She remained physically active throughout her life, riding a bicycle around town until age 100 when she fell and broke her leg. At age 110, she moved into a local nursing home, in part due to her failing eyesight. There she remained physically active including tending to all of her daily task such as bathing, dressing and feeding herself until shortly before her death. She smoked two cigarettes per day for most of her life, including in the nursing home, until at the age of 117 they requested that she stop. She drank a glass of port wine daily. She was a devout Catholic, who prayed daily and attended Vespers weekly. She recalled having met Vincent van Gough once when he visited her town, but reported that she did not like him. During her life, she had relatively few ailments. She attributed her long life to the fact that she did not bathe with water, using olive oil instead, which was the classic way of bathing in ages past when it was believed that bathing in water was unhealthy.

Kane Oto was born on January 2nd, 1903, in a village in Fukuoka, Japan, and died at the verified age of 119 and 107 days recently on April 19th, 2022. She is the second oldest documented person and at the time of her death, she was the oldest person alive at the time. She married her cousin, Hideo Tanaka, and together they had two sons and two daughters. They owned a small shop that sold udon noodle dishes. Her husband died at age 90 after 71 years of marriage. Unlike Calment, Oto experienced a number of serious health issues including pancreatic cancer at age 45 and colon cancer at age 103, both of which were treated successfully with surgery. At 115, she moved into a nursing home, but remained active taking daily walks and playing Othello with other residents. She loved math and continued to do arithmetic problems for fun until the end of her life. She attributed her ability to remain mentally sharp to this practice. She converted to Christianity after World War II and attributed her long life to her faith in God, the closeness of her family, eating good food and getting enough sleep.

Sarah Knauss is the third oldest documented living person. She was born on September 24th, 1880 in Hollywood, Pennsylvania, USA. She died at the age of 119 and 97 days on December 30th, 1999. She and her husband had one child, a daughter named Kathryn, who was born in 1903 and died at the age of 101. She remained mentally bright and physically active until her death. For the last 9 years of her life, she resided in an assisted living facility. Staff there described her as gentle, calm, outgoing and friendly. At her request, her body was donated to the Harvard Medical School for the study of longevity.

Lucile Randon is the fourth oldest living person and with the death of Knauss, is currently the oldest person alive now. She was born on February 11th, 1904, in Ales, Gard, France, and is currently 118 years and 110 days old. She is a Roman Catholic nun who taught and served as a governess until retiring at age 75. Following World War II, she worked in an orphanage for 18 years. She is also credited for being the oldest person to survive COVID-19, for which she tested positive in January, 2021 ,during an outbreak in the nursing home in which she lives, but she did not become ill.

The top ten oldest recorded persons are all women, the oldest four were discussed above. The age range of these top ten are from 117 to 122. Two were French, one American, four Japanese, one Canadian, one Jamaican and one Italian. To get to the oldest recorded man, we are at the eleventh oldest person.

Jiroemon Kimura was born on April 19th, 1897, in Kamiukawa, Kyoto, Japan, and died on June 12th, 2013 at the age of 116 years and 54 days. This makes him the oldest living man and the eleventh oldest documented living person. He was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army during World War I and was eventually posted to Hiroshima in a communications unit until 1921. It is thought that he is the oldest and last living veteran of WWI. Following his discharge from the army, he returned home, working on the family farm. Eventually, he took a job as postmaster of the local post office and worked there for 45 years until retiring at age 65. However, he continued to work on the family farm until age 90. He and his wife were married 59 years and had 8 children. His sons still run the family farm. He was health conscious and remained physically active until his death. He read the newspaper every morning. He was interested in Japanese politics and watched live parliamentary debates on television, similar to our C-Span. He attributed his long life to eating small portions of food, a practice known as hara hachi bun me.

I hope you enjoyed meeting these interesting people. Next week, we will end this three-part series with a look at the Blue Zones Project, which was the result of studying communities around the world that have the highest number of people living over the age of 100 to see what we can learn from them.

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