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

Introduction

Previous research on centenarians has indicated the existence of a phenomenon known as the “mortality plateau” (Modig et al., 2017). Mortality appears to stabilize at around 50 percent annually from the age of 100 and upwards. However, few studies have investigated whether this holds true for supercentenarians (individuals aged 110 and above) as well (Barbi et al., 2018). This can mainly be attributed to the inadequate dataset of supercentenarians in the past, with the historic lack of supercentenarian data preventing proper statistical analysis.

While still incomplete, efforts are underway to update historical supercentenarian data to obtain a more accurate depiction of past and present lifespans. An additional benefit of gathering and validating supercentenarian age claims is the opportunity to analyze mortality trajectories and interpret the mortality of exceptionally old individuals.

Moreover, it has been previously noted that seasons influence human mortality, with a higher number of deaths occurring during the colder months of the year (Rau, 2007). Several factors contribute to increased mortality during colder months (Drefahl, 2005). Climate, greater proximity to others, and access to nutrition have all been observed to affect mortality patterns. Seasonality in mortality naturally depends on the climate of the country in which a supercentenarian resides, with some countries experiencing fewer seasonal shifts in temperature and humidity than others (Rau, 2007).

Similarly, it has been observed that a person’s month of birth affects their lifespan (Huntington, 1938; Drefahl, 2005). Some research suggests that this is linked to access to nutrition during fetal development, impacting the individual throughout their life (Doblhammer, 2004). This supports the notion that individuals born during or directly after the winter months may have higher mortality and a lower likelihood of attaining exceptional longevity. Drefahl (2005) acknowledges that it is still uncertain which environmental conditions precisely determine a person’s lifespan.

Given the rapidly increasing number of supercentenarians, it is worth exploring how both mortality and seasonality can be observed in this age group.

Methods

Data for 2,365 validated deceased supercentenarians from around the world, born between 1788 and 1906, were organized into tables. Information such as month of birth, month of death, age at death, and gender was recorded.

One-year mortality was computed by dividing the number of supercentenarians who died at a specific age by the total number of supercentenarians who achieved that age (e.g., if 500 out of 1,000 supercentenarians died at the age of 110, the one-year mortality would be 50 percent).

Seasonal nativity and mortality were determined by calculating the number of supercentenarians born or dying in a particular month and dividing it by the total number of supercentenarians (e.g., if 150 supercentenarians out of 1,500 were born in March, the result would be 10 percent born in that month).

Results

Month of birth and death

Figure 1. Supercentenarians by month of birth and death (%).

It is noteworthy that there is a seasonality in the birth and death patterns of supercentenarians. Differences exist between the first half (47.99%) and the second half of the year (52.01%) regarding births, with an even more pronounced contrast between the colder months of October to March (55.73%) and the warmer months of April to September (44.27%).

Additionally, variations in death patterns were observed between the first half (52.26%) and the second half (47.74%) of the year. Notably, mortality rates were highest during the colder months of October to March (56.87%), while being lower in the warmer months of April to September (43.13%).

One-year-mortality rate and survival past 110

Figure 2. Survival past age 110.

The one-year-mortality rates were observed to be close to 50 percent for individuals aged 110-113, gradually increasing to about 60 percent for those aged 114-116. For higher ages with only a few survivors, the one-year-mortality rate exhibited inconsistency, such as ranging from 0 percent at ages 120-121 to 100 percent at age 122.

Survival milestones were also noted: 50 percent cohort survival occurred at 111 years and 56 days, 25 percent survival at 112 years and 70 days, 10 percent survival at 113 years and 211 days, and 5 percent survival at 114 years and 150 days.

The median age at death for supercentenarians was recorded as 111 years and 56 days, while the mean age was 111 years and 197 days. The maximum age achieved in the dataset was 122 years and 164 days.

Table 1. One-year-mortality among supercentenarians

Discussion

The findings of the data analysis align with previous studies regarding a human mortality plateau at 50 percent, particularly for ages 110-113. There appears to be an acceleration in mortality from age 114 to 116, with observed mortality rates approaching 60 percent. However, drawing meaningful conclusions at higher ages is challenging due to the limited number of individuals (only 11) who have lived beyond 117 years. Given the diminishing data with increased survival, it is essential to interpret the results with caution.

Regarding seasonality in birth and death patterns, it’s notable that the majority of supercentenarians were born and died during the colder months of the year. This is consistent with a previous study on centenarians born in the fall months (Gavrilov & Gavrilova, 2011). The present study’s results closely resemble those of Doblhammer et al. (2005), who found that the majority of German semi-supercentenarians are born between September and February. These findings suggest that the environment in which a person is gestated and subsequently born may influence their actual lifespan.

Considering the era in which most supercentenarians were born, marked by a lack of central heating and contemporary conveniences, one could hypothesize that these conditions might contribute to exceptional longevity, especially among individuals born during colder months. Nutrition, especially before the 19th century, and infectious diseases have shown seasonality (Doblhammer et al., 2005). Harvests and increased nutrition access during the fall, followed by a decline in nutrition during the spring, could impact the later stages of growth when individuals require the most nutrition.

Concerning increased mortality during colder months, this phenomenon has been observed in other studies and has been attributed to an elevated risk of infection or increased environmental exposure (Rau, 2007). Given that increased age results in an increased likelihood of frailty and vulnerability, this could particularly impact supercentenarian mortality, especially in more temperate countries.

Strengths and limitations
The absence of any prior analysis with such an extensive dataset lends significant weight to the findings. However, it’s crucial to note that this examination of supercentenarian mortality is far from exhaustive. Certain critical factors, such as regional variations in mortality and nativity, have not been explored, potentially exerting a substantial influence on the results. It must also be noted that only deceased birth cohorts were included. Neither has any statistical analysis been performed on the results.

The findings presented in this study should rather be viewed as a preliminary attempt to comprehend supercentenarian mortality and survival trajectories. Further, more detailed investigations, including regional considerations, are warranted for a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics at play.

Conclusion
It is plausible that a mortality plateau exists at approximately 50 percent, though the findings in this study hint at a potential acceleration at higher ages. Similarly, the likelihood of reaching supercentenarian status seem to be influenced by the time of year a person is born and mortality also appears to fluctuate over the seasons.

 

References

Barbi, E., Lagona, F., Marsili, M., Vaupel, J. W., & Wachter, K. W. (2018). The plateau of human mortality: Demography of longevity pioneers. Science, 360, 6396, 1459-1461. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aat3119

Doblhammer, G. (2004). The late life legacy of very early life. Springer-Verlag.

Doblhammer, G., Scholz, R., & Maier, H. (2005). Month of birth and survival to age 105+: Evidence from the age validation study of German semi-supercentenarians. Experimental Gerontology, 40(10), 829-835. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exger.2005.07.012

Drefahl, S. (2005). The Influence of Season on Survival in Persons Aged 105+ in Germany [Diploma Thesis]. http://www.sd.de/Drefahl2005_Thesis_Seasonality.pdf

Gavrilov, L. A., & Gavrilova, N. S. (2011). Season of birth and exceptional longevity: comparative study of american centenarians, their siblings, and spouses. Journal of aging research, 2011, 104616. https://doi.org/10.4061/2011/104616

Huntington, E. (1938). Season of birth. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Modig, K., Andersson, T., Vaupel, J., Rau, R., & Ahlbom, A. (2017). How long do centenarians survive? Life expectancy and maximum lifespan. Journal of Internal Medicine, 282(2), 156-163. https://doi.org/10.1111/joim.12627

Rau, R. (2007). Literature Review. In: Rau, R (Ed.). Seasonality in Human Mortality. Demographic Research Monographs. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-540-44902-7_2