Longevity myths

From Academic Kids

For substantiated claims please see supercentenarian; this article concerns unsupported claims and why the burden of proof must rest on them, along with a list of those that have failed to meet it.

Longevity myths have been around for as long as humanity. As the Guinness Book of World Records stated in numerous editions from the 1960s to 1980s, "No single subject is more obscured by vanity, deceit, falsehood, and deliberate fraud than the extremes of human longevity." At the time, Guinness had never acknowledged anyone as having reached the age of 114, but longevity has increased in recent years. The first three people to be acknowledged by Guinness as reaching 114 have all had their claims disputed. The first two people Guinness accepted as reaching 113, both of whom were male, have now been discredited. (It has since been determined that some 90% of persons who have reached the age of 113 have been female.)

Even as of 2005, with recordholder Jeanne Calment having died at the undisputed age of 122, the facts remain clear:

  • Only about fifty people in human history have been documented as reaching the age of 114.
  • Fewer than twenty of those people who reached 114 have reached the age of 115.
  • Of the eight people regarded by the Guinness Book or significant scholars to have reached 116, three are subject to substantial doubt.
  • Calment is the only person absolutely verified to have lived to 120.

Yet in the face of the ages that can be validated by investigation, we are still confronted with claims that the observed extremes have been far exceeded -- longevity myths.

Leaving aside claims in mythology of lives into the thousands of years, and biblical claims for early humans, such as for Methuselah (969 years), there have been reports for centuries that persist today of people decades, even generations, older than have ever been shown authentic. Indeed, the magic "limit" of 120 years is thought by some as being divinely instructed at the time of the Flood (Genesis 6:3), though various later Biblical lifespans exceed this at least up to the time of Moses, who is mentioned as being 120 years old when he died (Deuteronomy 31:2 and 34:7).

A National Geographic article in 1973 treated with respect some claims subsequently disproven, including the notorious Vilcabamba valley in Ecuador, where locals claimed ancestors' baptismal records as their own. That article also reported of very aged people in Hunza, a mountain region of Pakistan, without documentary evidence being cited.

It is typical that extreme longevity claims come from remote areas where recordkeeping is poor, but generally observed life expectancy is rather lower than in the areas where genuine claims are typically found. The Caribbean nation of Dominica was lately promoting the allegedly 128-year-old Elizabeth Israel (1875??–2003) but has a smaller population and lower life expectancy than Iceland, where the documentation is very good and life expectancy is very high yet the longevity record is 108.

The Caucasus mountain region of Abkhazia was the subject of extreme claims for decades, inspired by the desire of Stalin to believe that he would live a very long time, the most extreme claim there being that of Shirali Mislimov (1805??–1973).

In 2003, health officials in Chechnya declared that Zabani Khakimova was at least 124 years old, but her age was never authenticated; she died in 2003. In 2004, The Moscow (Russia) Times reported on Pasikhat Dzhukalayeva, also of Chechnya, who claims to have been born in 1881. But, as with Mrs. Khakimova, Mrs. Dzhukalayeva's age has not been authenticated.

Brazil has made several unsubstantiated claims, starting with Maria do Carmo Geronimo (1871??-2000). On March 3, 2005, the Associated Press reported that Maria Olivia da Silva, who claims to have been born on February 28, 1880, had been recognized by RankBrasil as the oldest-living woman in Brazil. Guinness has been unable to verify her date of birth. RankBrasil, a competitor of Guinness, had previously promoted the claim of Ana Martins da Silva (1880?-2004) and that records were sent to Guinness [1] (http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_555946.html), but the claim was never validated.

An earlier claim from South America was for Javier Pereira (said to have been determined to be 167 years old by a dentist looking at his teeth!) There have likewise been a scattering of extreme claims from Africa, the most recent being Namibia's Anna Visser, who died in January 2004 at an alleged 125 or 126, and Mokoko Temo of South Africa, who was said to be 130 when she voted in the April 2004 election.

The most extreme claim in the 20th century was a wire story announcing in 1933 that China's Li Chung-yun, born in 1680, had died at age 256 (mathematical error as in original).

In prior centuries there have been other claims, one of the best-known being Thomas Parr, introduced to London in 1635 with the claim that he was 152 years old, who promptly died and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Greater English claims include those of the allegedly 169-year-old Henry Jenkins (apparently concocted to support testimony in a court case about events a century before) and the supposedly 207-year-old Thomas Carn (died in 1588 by most reports).

Longevity myths did not come in for serious scrutiny until the work of W.J. Thoms in 1873, and the odd wire correspondent looking for a captivating filler reports extreme undocumented claims to this day: in early 2000 a Nepalese man claimed to have been born in 1832, citing as evidence a card issued in 1988. In December 2003, a Chinese news service claimed incorrectly that Guinness had recognized a woman in Saudi Arabia as being 131.

Responsible validation of longevity claims involves investigation of records following the claimant from birth to the present, and claims far outside the demonstrated records regularly fail such scrutiny. The United States Social Security Administration has public death records of over 100 people said to have died in their 160s to 190s, but often a quick look at the file immediately finds an obvious error.

The work of sorting genuine supercentenarians is a continuous process, and a news story must never be taken for authoritative fact if no validation is cited.

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