Study: many of the “oldest” people in the world may not be as old as we think
A new paper explores what “supercentenarians” have in common. Turns out it’s bad record-keeping.
A supercententarian is 110. Practically nobody makes it to 110.
However, people living to be 100 is becoming less rare. Mrs. W. across the street from me died recently at 101. And when Claude Levi-Strauss died at age 100 in 2009, the 3 headlines in the NYT Obituary section that day averaged 101, the first time I’d ever seen that.
By Kelsey Piper Aug 8, 2019, 12:00pm EDT
Why do some regions — say, Sardinia, Italy, or Okinawa, Japan —produce dozens of these “supercentenarians” while other regions produce none? Is it genetics? Diet? Environmental factors? Long walks at dawn?
A new working paper released on bioRxiv, the open access site for prepublication biology papers, appears to have cleared up the mystery once and for all: It’s none of the above.
Instead, it looks like the majority of the supercentenarians (people who’ve reached the age of 110) in the United States are engaged in — intentional or unintentional — exaggeration.
The paper, by Saul Justin Newman of the Biological Data Science Institute at Australian National University, looked at something we often don’t give a second thought to: the state of official record-keeping. …
Newman looks at the introduction of birth certificates in various states and finds that “the state-specific introduction of birth certificates is associated with a 69-82% fall in the number of supercentenarian records.” …
The paper also looks at the phenomenon in Italy and Japan, where something different seems to be happening.
Italy keeps better vital statistics than the United States does, and has had reliable vital statistics across the country for hundreds of years — yet in Italy, too, there are clusters of the country where lots of supercentenarians pop up. Maybe the Italian supercentenarians are for real?
Newman’s analysis suggests not. He starts out by noticing something fishy: The parts of Italy that claim the most supercentenarians overall have high crime rates and low life expectancy.
… The same pattern repeats itself in Japan: Okinawa has the greatest density of super-old people, despite having one of the lowest life expectancies in the country and generally poor health outcomes.
… some of it might be reporting error, and some of the supercentenarians might be produced by pension fraud (someone might be claiming a dead person is still alive for pension benefits, or claiming the identity of a parent or older sibling).
About 50 years ago, yogurt was becoming a mainstream product in Southern California supermarkets. One way it was marketed was by pointing to the large numbers of centenarians in Armenia. The long-livedness of Armenians was attributed to eating yogurt.
Years later, it was finally figured out that Armenia in 1969 didn’t actually have a huge number of 100+ year-old men, it had a huge number of draft dodgers who had escaped the 25-year terms in the Czar’s army by assuming the identity of a dead father or uncle who was too old to be drafted.
But I didn’t care. Knudsen fruit-at-the-bottom yogurt was delicious and as long as my mom kept buying it, I was happy.
… When you’re looking for something exceptionally rare, your data set will be dominated by errors and false positives.
Improbably old ex-slaves were pretty common when I was a kid, too. For example, Charlie Smith was a minor celebrity in the early 1970s for his claim to be a 130-year old native of Africa. In 1972, he was invited to watch the night launch of Apollo 17 from the VIP area.
Before the launch, he’d been confident in his skepticism: “”th’ ain’t nobody goin’ t’ no moon. Me, you, or anybody else.”
But when the 365′ tall Saturn V thundered off into the sky he almost jumped out of his skin. He recovered enough of his bravado to tell TV:
“I see they goin’ somewhere, but that don’t mean nothin’.”
I recall watching these interviews on TV, but I can’t find a video of it. It seemed at the time like the most 1972ish thing imaginable, but weird stuff like that happened all the time back then.