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The oldest person ever: Will Jeanne Calment be the last titleholder?

Jeanne Calment at the age of 120. (Source: Pascal Parrot/Sygma via Getty Images)

Introduction

While exceptional longevity has long been a fascination for many individuals, there appears to be some that believe that there has been a tapering of regarding how long a person can actually live. Is this true? Have we already observed the oldest person that will ever live?

The first centenarian and supercentenarian?

It is likely that the first centenarian lived in ancient times and belonged to the upper class. While achieving centenarianhood may have occurred then, such instances are unverifiable. Early verifiable centenarians appeared in the 17th century, and although Eilif Philipsen is recognized as the first fully verifiable centenarian, well-documented claims born earlier than him do exist. One of the earliest known documented centenarians was the French veteran André Levesque de La Souctière (1668-1772) (Antigny, n.y.). However, the vast majority of early centenarians is unknown, making it currently impossible to determine who the first centenarian was.

A recent revelation in the field of exceptional longevity posits that the first person to become a supercentenarian may not have been Geert Adriaans Boomgaard but rather another individual from the Netherlands. Unveiled at the 15th Supercentenarian Seminar in Paris by Dutch researcher van Dijk in November 2023 was the case of Hendrika Link-Scholte(n). She was presented in a poster presentation including documentation indicating that she may have lived to be a supercentenarian. While further research is needed to fully authenticate her age, she could potentially be considered for inclusion on some lists with lower standards. What will surprise most is that she was allegedly born in 1686, more than a century prior to Boomgaard, and died in 1797.

The recognized titleholders as the oldest person ever (and others that have been considered for the title)

The (so far) first fully verified person to reach age 110 was Geert Adriaans Boomgaard, a Dutch man born in 1788 who died at the age of 110 years, 135 days. Remarkably, Boomgaard was a soldier in Napoleon’s army. He was born and died in Groningen, the son of a boat captain, and would himself also follow in his father’s footsteps. Late in life, Boomgaard would be recognized for his longevity and has long been a validated supercentenarian. In 2021, a thorough validation of his age was presented (Chambre et al., 2021).

Geert Boomgaard at age 100. Source: Beeldbank Groningen

Boomgaard’s reign as the oldest person ever would stand for only four years when Margaret Ann Neve of the small island Guernsey of the Channel Islands would surpass his age (Poulain et al., 2021). Neve led a life of relative leisure, born in St Peter Port in 1792 into a family of high standing. She was married but didn’t have any children. Neve enjoyed traveling and learning languages. As with Boomgaard, Neve started receiving accolades for her longevity after passing the century mark. She passed away of natural causes in 1903, aged 110 years, 321 days.

After the death of Neve, no other person would reach supercentenarian status for the next 22 years. Although Ann Pouder, notably “verified” by Alexander Graham Bell, was previously recognized as a supercentenarian, her age was disputed and later revalidated by me and Dr. Andrew Holmes, confirming her age as “only” 109.

Louisa Thiers, born in Whitesboro, New York, in 1814 and the daughter of an American Revolutionary War veteran, became the first person to reach the age of 111. Like Boomgaard and Neve, Thiers was born into an affluent family. She was married and had five children. Thiers was also a fervent supporter of women’s emancipation. Louisa Thiers passed away in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1926, at the age of 111 years and 138 days.

Louisa Thiers at age 105. Source: National Geographic Magazine

Thiers’ successor as the oldest living person would also become the next holder of the title as the world’s oldest person ever. Delina Filkins was born in Stark, New York, in 1815. In contrast to her successors, Filkins came from a humbler background, working at her family farm until marrying at a young age and continuing to farm with her husband in the same area. Filkins had six children. In remarkable health well into her centenarian years, she even underwent surgery for a hernia at the age of 107. As the first person to reach both ages 112 and 113, Delina Filkins was an extreme outlier of her time. She passed away in Richfield Springs, New York, at the age of 113 years and 214 days, and her record as the oldest person ever would stand for the next 54 years.

For several years, the person acknowledged to have succeeded Delina Filkins as the oldest person ever was Fannie Thomas, born in 1867 and passing away in 1981. She was exactly as old as she claimed, reaching 113 years and 273 days. In fact, the year 1980 saw three individuals surpassing Filkins’ mark. Anna Murphy claimed to have been born on 15 April 1867, nine days before Fannie Thomas, and died two days before Christmas in 1980 at the claimed age of 113 years and 252 days. However, her birth record contradicts this, supporting instead that she was born on 25 April 1867, making her one day younger than Thomas. Despite this, neither of these two women would hold the title of the oldest person ever. Still, at the time of their deaths, both were the oldest known individuals to have ever died.

Eliza Underwood at age 110. Source: Columbian-Progress
Eliza Underwood at age 110. Source: Columbian-Progress

Instead, Eliza Underwood, an African American woman born in Clinton, North Carolina, as a daughter to recently freed slaves, would be the next holder of the title. Underwood led a life of hard work, starting to work at the age of eight when she lived with and worked for a family of white neighbors. She married and had one daughter, adopting another, working in the fields and weaving cloth. Notably, she boarded a plane on her own at the age of 111 and flew to Washington, D.C., to reside with an adopted daughter. She later died here, just five days after Fannie Thomas, at the age of 113 years and 318 days. However, there is a reservation that Underwood might have been even older since most documentation from her early life supports a birth in 1865 or 1866.

While there have been two men acknowledged by certain organizations as the oldest person ever, Shigechiyo Izumi and Matthew Beard, both of their claims are considered disputed by LongeviQuest. Izumi is likely to have been around 105 at the time of his death, and Beard did likely not even reach centenarian status. This highlights the importance of high standards for accurate age validation.

At the age of 100. Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Augusta Holtz at age 100. Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The next person in line was another American, Augusta Holtz. Holtz was born in present-day Poland in 1871 and emigrated to the United States in 1873 with her family. Settling in Illinois, Holtz grew up on a farm. She later married a carpenter, moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and had four children. Like the other individuals mentioned, Holtz enjoyed good health well into her centenarian years and only moved into a geriatric home at the age of 109. Augusta Holtz passed away in Florissant, Missouri, in 1986 at the age of 115 years and 79 days.

While Jeanne Calment is widely recognized as the current holder of the title as the oldest person ever, there is a possibility that she wasn’t the direct successor to Holtz. Support for Easter Wiggins of Rolling Fork, Mississippi has been growing in recent years. Wiggins claimed to have been born four months prior to Calment and died in 1990 at the alleged age of 116. However, her validation is not complete, so she will, for now, remain an addendum.

And finally, Jeanne Calment. Despite some attempts to cast doubt on her age in recent years, she remains one of the most thoroughly validated supercentenarians of all time. Calment was born in Arles, France, in 1875 and died in her hometown in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days, pushing the limit of the maximum known human lifespan by seven years. She came from a well-off family and never had to work, instead pursuing various hobbies. She married a double second cousin and had one daughter. Calment outlived both her daughter and her only grandchild. She moved into a nursing home when she was approaching 110 and remained in remarkably good health until she suffered a fall a month before her 115th birthday, after which her health very slowly deteriorated.

Will the age of Jeanne Calment be surpassed?

The individuals arguing that Jeanne Calment was actually her own daughter in disguise allege that reaching the age of 122 is statistically impossible (Zak & Gibbs, 2020). Others, including myself, argue that this isn’t the case, and it is rather a question of chance and an individual having the correct circumstances to allow them to live exceptionally long.

Given that supercentenarian one-year mortality might plateau at 50 percent, the chance that any supercentenarian would surpass the final age of Calment is approximately 1 in 10,000. This number might seem extreme but considering that each current birth cohort produces more than 150 to 200 verifiable supercentenarians, it won’t be unexpected if Calment’s age is surpassed by more than one person during this century. Still, no person out of the currently more than 2,500 LongeviQuest recognized deceased supercentenarians has even come close to surpassing Calment, with the second and third oldest individuals ever, Kane Tanaka and Sarah Knauss, both falling three years and two months short of Calment’s mark.

Scholars argue that there might exist an upper limit in lifespan, and serious medical and/or technological breakthroughs might be needed to exceed this theoretical limit (Blagosklonny, 2021; Gavrilova & Gavrilov, 2020). Considering that human knowledge and expertise are constantly increasing, it might be a given that the human lifespan will sooner or later be extendable.

Given these facts, the answer to the question of whether Jeanne Calment’s age will be surpassed is that yes, it is highly likely that her age will be surpassed this century.

Presented below is a table for how long each mentioned titleholder’s mark as the oldest person ever stood:

References

Antigny, A. (n.y.). André LEVESQUE de LA SOUCTIÈRE. Geneanet. https://gw.geneanet.org/aantigny?lang=en&pz=nathan+jean+denis&nz=antigny+mathieu&ocz=0&p=andre&n=levesque+de+la+souctiere

Blagosklonny M. V. (2021). No limit to maximal lifespan in humans: how to beat a 122-year-old record. Oncoscience, 8, 110–119. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncoscience.547

Chambre, D., Jeune, B., Poulain, M. (2021). Geert Adriaans Boomgaard, the First Supercentenarian in History?. In: Maier, H., Jeune, B., Vaupel, J.W. (Eds). Exceptional Lifespans. Demographic Research Monographs. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-49970-9_15

Gavrilova, N. S., & Gavrilov, L. A. (2020). Are We Approaching a Biological Limit to Human Longevity?. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences, 75(6), 1061–1067. https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glz164

Poulain, M., Chambre, D., Jeune, B. (2021). Margaret Ann Harvey Neve – 110 Years Old in 1903. The First Documented Female Supercentenarian. In: Maier, H., Jeune, B., Vaupel, J.W. (Eds). Exceptional Lifespans. Demographic Research Monographs. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-49970-9_16

van Dijk, J. S. (2023, November 16-17). Hendrika Link – Scholte(n) (1686-1797). Earliest Supercentenarian Ever? [Poster Presentation]. 15th Supercentenarian Seminar, Paris, France.

Zak, N., & Gibbs, P. (2020). A Bayesian Assessment of the Longevity of Jeanne Calment. Rejuvenation Research, 23(1), 3-16. https://doi.org/10.1089/rej.2019.2227

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