On the 21st of February this year there will be a celebration of the birthday of 122-year old Jeanne Calment, the oldest verified human being ever. This is an initiative launched by longevity advocate Victor Björk, and the celebration involves posting a picture of oneself consuming Calment’s favourite foods (olive oil/dark chocolate/port wine)
So who was Jeanne Calment?
Calment lived alone without any help at all until aged 110, when she moved into a nursing home, not because she needed to, but because of a fire in her apartment. Aged 114 she was still able to take care of herself and walk up and down stairs without help. However, shortly before her 115th birthday she fell down a stairway and never fully recovered her ability to walk. When Calment was 118 years old she went through several thorough cognitive tests, and surprisingly she scored within the normal range of a person without dementia, despite by now being physically frail and requiring a wheelchair.
Since aging itself is the major cause of death, extreme ages are only reached by people aging biologically slower. Calment is therefore so far the slowest-aging individual ever recorded. It is also clear from looking at pictures of her that she looked better than expected at different ages, so all that we know is that “something” (a rare genetic combination paired with epigenetic expression) slowed her aging process. But what was that "something"? We will likely not find out, as an autopsy was not done and genome sequencing did not exist back then.
Personally, I think the historical lack of research on maximum lifespan is a problem, reducing focus on what stops us from getting even older. While lots of biomedical research is chasing low-hanging fruit like diabetes, as of 2016 precious little is being done to study the pathologies of the oldest old, which sharply limit human lifespan (Read more on this in a previous article)
The new Calment’s of the future?
Dmitry Kaminskiy, Moldovan businessman and director of Deep Knowledge Ventures (a company focusing on investment in upcoming anti-aging biotechnologies) offers a $ 1 million dollar price for the first person to reach 123 (201 days older than Calment at age of death). This might superficially seem like an easy record since longevity is increasing globally, however 98% of people living to 110 fail to reach 115 and no one else has reached within 3 years of Calment’s age at death. Nevertheless it remains an interesting question who the first 123-year old is going to be, and one should expect someone to reach it within at least a few decades. However will that 123-year old have achieved this “naturally”, or will it be a centenarian who has been treated with some partially “rejuvenating” medical treatments?.