Science | February 11, 2020 6:00 am

The Enduring Mystery of the World’s Oldest People

The story of Jeanne Calment, who lived to the age of 122, continues to spark controversy

Jeanne Calment
Jeanne Calment in 1895
Creative Commons

We live in a moment in time where longevity is a growing concern. For some high-profile thinkers and scientists, the human lifespan is a challenge to be solved; barring that, it’s at least something that can be hacked. Ray Kuzweil, for instance, famously takes a host of supplements with the intention of prolonging his life. Others have experimented with, say, reducing their caloric intake to extreme levels.

Based on that, it’s not surprising that plenty of people are mesmerized by accounts of the extremely long-lived. This isn’t something unique to the present day: P.T. Barnum’s early rise to fame came in part from exploiting the life of Joice Heth, who was born into slavery and who Barnum claimed was 161 years old. (She was not.) In fiction, too, the very old can be a source of fascination for readers: Peter Carey’s novel Illywhacker is but one example.

Among the most famous of long-lived people is Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122. She was a local celebrity in France for her vivacity at an advanced age; as she grew older, her fame extended to a global scale. A new article by Lauren Collins at The New Yorker explores a question that more and more people have begun asking in recent years: was Calment really as old as she claimed to be?

One theory is that Calment and her daughter Yvonne switched places. This would help explan the idea that Calment appeared a few decades younger than her actual age. Others point to evidence of changed signatures and historical gaps to bolster the notion that Calment wasn’t who she said she was, or at the very least was not as old as she said she was.

The story of Calment’s life, and the controversy that surrounded her after her death, is a vivid narrative, and one which Collins turns into a thoughtful, thought-provoking article. Along the way, she also succinctly describes the very practical reasons why the very old captivate us:

Supercentenarians often look and feel younger than their age might suggest, and they tend to elude the diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes, that kill off most of their peers. Some scientists believe that clues to extending and improving human life are embedded in their DNA.

Collins isn’t the only writer to explore Calment’s life and the question of her identity; so too did Angela Chen at The Verge last year. Chen explored the accusations of identity theft that have entangled this case. Something that comes up in both Collins’s and Chen’s articles is that Calment being supremely long-lived is arguably the most plausible option when the full details of some of the identity theft theories are fully aired. It’s a fascinatingly layered series of mysteries, compelling both on their own and for their implications for humanity.

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