In my years of researching supercentenarian claims I have personally documented over 3,000 supercentenarians, many of whom I have also collected newspaper articles of in order to help validate their ages. What strikes me is that there are so many different aspects of their lives that supercentenarians attribute their longevity to. One of the most common things to observe when reading about supercentenarians is that they have several family members that lived exceptionally long lives themselves. There are examples of both mother-daughter supercentenarians (e.g., Mary Phil Cota & Rosabell Fenstermaker) and sibling supercentenarians (e.g., Kame Ganeko and Kikue Taira) as well as other combinations, which would hint that there is a genetic component to longevity. But is this the only factor? Do all supercentenarians have long-lived relatives? Can there be other reasons as to why some individuals live long?

What does the research say?

According to Passarino et al. (2016) human longevity is a result of both genetic and non-genetic factors. Sibling research has indicated that both siblings and children of long-lived individuals live longer than those of people with average lifespans (Schoenmaker et al., 2006). Family recontruction in an Italian study revealed the same thing, both parents and siblings of long-lived individuals do live longer (Montesanto et al., 2011). Longevity can therefore likely be attributed to genetics, which can be controlled by eliminating other factors that may affect lifespan, such as the environment. Some candidate genes have been proposed, such as APOE and FOXO3 (Eline Slagboom et al., 2018; Lindahl-Jacobsen & Christensen, 2019). This longevity advantage with lower mortality among siblings of centenarians, does, according to some research, however seem to disappear the older the individual becomes and vanishing by age 100 (Gavrilova & Gavrilov, 2022).

Still, while genetics do play a great part in allowing a person to become exceptionally old, common trends that cannot be solely attributed to genes have been noted among centenarians and supercentenarians. Resilience, the ability to adapt positively to adversity, is widely noted among centenarians (Zeng & Shen, 2010). What this means is that when these individuals lose loved ones or face other hardships they will react with a wide array of coping strategies and be able to not let these losses and adversities affect their lives negatively, rather finding ways to move forward. In the same vein, spirituality and the ability to make sense of their long lives has been found to be a crucial factor for support among centenarians (Manning et al., 2012).

But what else? Diet is commonly explained to be the key factor for longevity. Alleged (but disputed) supercentenarian Bernardo LaPallo partially attributed his longevity to eating a diet with fruits and vegetables, nutrients that have been observed in studies to benefit health in general (Probst et al., 2017). Actual supercentenarians have also been noted to attribute their longevity to their diet, although these diets often become secondary in news reports in favor of “less healthy” alternatives, such as smoking and whisky (Henry Allingham) or bacon (Gertrude Baines). A common diet that is often associated with longevity is the Mediterranean diet, a diet with a low quantity of saturated fats and plenty of greens (Vasto et al., 2012).

Still, while green is good, another common trend that I have observed when studying supercentenarians is their ability to remain engaged in their surroundings but also that they don’t let their advancing ages limit them. The theory of selective optimization with compensation (SOC) suggests that for an individual to enjoy a healthy aging they have to be able to adapt to their changing bodies and abilities (Baltes & Baltes, 1990). Still, some centenarians are noted to be able to enjoy physical health longer than their non-centenarian peers (Herbert et al., 2022).

One thing that often fascinates many longevity enthusiasts is the fact that some supercentenarians are able to continue living independently until extremely advanced ages and be able to move about without issue.  Jeanne Calment, for example, lived on her own until shortly before her 110th birthday (and also smoked for close to a century!). While no supercentenarian has so far been observed to partake in a race of some kind, some have come close. Polish supercentenarian Stanislaw Kowalski ran the 100 meters in the M105 category and had some plans to race as a supercentenarian, which didn’t come to fruition. Norwegian man Herman Smith-Johannsen, famous for introducing cross-country skiing in North America, would still go skiing and kayaking even as a centenarian. Further, several supercentenarians have credited their longevity to hard work and keeping themselves occupied. Some research does imply that centenarians that lead active lifestyles do score better in mental status scores, which could imply that engagement is beneficial for retained functioning (Martin et al., 2010).

Herman Smith-Johannsen (1875-1987) remained physically active even as an advanced centenarian. Source: Office national du film du Canada

 

So, what have we learned?

Exceptional longevity is likely not influenced by only genetics, if a person wants to live long, they will have to put some effort into living a healthy life. Engagement and lifestyle are crucial for both social and psychological well-being, both of which are common in centenarians and likely supercentenarians too. Remaining physically active and eating a diet rich in nutrients will further help a person live longer. There is still a long way to go for understanding human longevity, what we have now are good guesses, but the key for unlocking the full picture concerning the quest for longevity is still out there.

 

References

Baltes, P., & Baltes, M. (1990). Psychological perspectives on successful aging: The model of selective optimization with compensation. In Baltes, P., & Baltes, M. (Eds.), Successful aging: Perspectives from the behavioral sciences (1–34). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511665684.003

Eline Slagboom, P., van den Berg, N., & Deelen, J. (2018). Phenome and genome based studies into human ageing and longevity: An overview. Biochimica et biophysica acta. Molecular basis of disease, 1864(9 Pt A), 2742–2751. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbadis.2017.09.017

Gavrilova, N. S., & Gavrilov, L. A. (2022). Protective Effects of Familial Longevity Decrease With Age and Become Negligible for Centenarians. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences, 77(4), 736–743. https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glab380

Herbert, C., House, M., Dietzman, R., Climstein, M., Furness, J., & Kemp-Smith, K. (2022). Blue Zones: Centenarian Modes of Physical Activity: A Scoping Review. Population Ageing. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12062-022-09396-0

Lindahl-Jacobsen R, Christensen K. (.2019). Gene–lifestyle interactions in longevity. In: Fernández-Ballesteros, R., Benetos, A., Robine, J. (Eds.). The Cambridge Handbook of Successful Aging. Cambridge University Press, 91–109. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316677018.9781316677008

Manning, L. K., Leek, J. A., & Radina, M. E. (2012). Making Sense of Extreme Longevity: Explorations Into the Spiritual Lives of Centenarians. Journal of religion, spirituality & aging, 24(4), 345–359. https://doi.org/10.1080/15528030.2012.706737

Martin, P., Baenziger, J., Macdonald, M., Siegler, I. C., & Poon, L. W. (2009). Engaged Lifestyle, Personality, and Mental Status Among Centenarians. Journal of adult development, 16(4), 199–208. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10804-009-9066-y

Montesanto, A., Latorre, V., Giordano, M., Martino, C., Domma, F., & Passarino, G. (2011). The genetic component of human longevity: analysis of the survival advantage of parents and siblings of Italian nonagenarians. European journal of human genetics: EJHG, 19(8), 882–886. https://doi.org/10.1038/ejhg.2011.40

Passarino, G., De Rango, F., & Montesanto, A. (2016). Human longevity: Genetics or Lifestyle? It takes two to tango. Immunity & ageing: I & A, 13, 12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12979-016-0066-z

Probst, Y. C., Guan, V. X., & Kent, K. (2017). Dietary phytochemical intake from foods and health outcomes: a systematic review protocol and preliminary scoping. BMJ open, 7(2), e013337. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2016-013337

Schoenmaker, M., de Craen, A. J., de Meijer, P. H., Beekman, M., Blauw, G. J., Slagboom, P. E., & Westendorp, R. G. (2006). Evidence of genetic enrichment for exceptional survival using a family approach: the Leiden Longevity Study. European journal of human genetics: EJHG, 14(1), 79–84. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ejhg.5201508

Vasto, S., Rizzo, C., & Caruso, C. (2012). Centenarians and diet: what they eat in the Western part of Sicily. Immunity & ageing: I & A, 9(1), 10. https://doi.org/10.1186/1742-4933-9-10

Zeng, Y., & Shen, K. (2010). Resilience significantly contributes to exceptional longevity. Current gerontology and geriatrics research, 2010, 525693. https://doi.org/10.1155/2010/525693

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

A large proportion of all verifiable supercentenarians who have ever lived come from the United States. Approximately 2,000 American supercentenarians born between 1814 and 1913 have been documented so far, and the proportion that are validated is continually increasing.

However, the United States of America is a vast mixture of different states, each with its own systems for recording and keeping documents (Mulcahy & Ford, 2019). This diversity results in the availability of certain documents, such as birth records, in some states but not in others.

While birth records are never the sole form of documentation needed to validate the age of a supercentenarian, they are usually among the strongest forms of documents. This is because they help establish a family relationship between the supercentenarian claimant and their parents, a connection that can only be inferred from other forms of documentation.

In general, civil birth records were not consistently kept in most states until the late 1800s. Some states have church records, such as christening or confirmation records, that can help locate this information. However, for many states, this information is unavailable, necessitating the implementation of alternate strategies.

The U.S. Census

The United States has conducted a census since 1790 (Krieger, 2019), with a decennial schedule. According to the 72-year rule for releasing census records, the most recent publicly available census is the 1950 US Census (United States Census Bureau, n.y.).

The primary purpose of the census is to enumerate the population of the United States and collect essential information about individuals (Winkle, 1994). In the first six census enumerations (1790-1840), only the head of the household was listed, along with notes on age ranges (e.g., 10-14 years old) and status (free white, other free person, or slave).

Starting with the 1850 census, each free person in the household was individually listed with their name and basic descriptors (Winkle, 1994). Over time, the information recorded in census records has expanded to capture key sociodemographic aspects of the population.

Most census records have been well-preserved and are publicly accessible. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the 1890 census was lost in a fire in 1921 (Winkle, 1994; United States Census Bureau, 2021).

Using census records to validate supercentenarians

For many American supercentenarians, an entry in the census is often the earliest available document, and in many cases, it may be the only early-life document stating an actual age for the person. This makes the census crucial for verifying claims with higher certainty.

Delina Filkins (1815-1928) on her 113th birthday. Photo source: FindAGrave

Early supercentenarians like Louisa Thiers (1814-1926) and Delina Filkins (1815-1928) can be proxy-validated using the 1820 and 1830 censuses (both listed as under ten in 1820 and 15-19 in 1830). Although not mentioned by name, family reconstruction has allowed for the identification of these individuals and validation of their age claims. No other validated American supercentenarians born before 1840 have been identified in the pre-1840 census records.

Considering that the number of supercentenarians increased rapidly in cohorts born after 1880, the loss of almost the entire 1890 census poses a significant challenge. For supercentenarians without another document (birth record, state census, etc.), there might be a gap of up to 20 years between their birth and the first time they are documented in the 1900 census (enumerated as of June 1).

Sarah Knauss (1880-1999). Photo source: aginganalytics.com

Sarah Knauss (1880-1999) was for a long time viewed with some skepticism, having been born in September 1880 but first appearing in the Census in 1900, meaning that she was a grown woman at the time. Considering that people can exaggerate their ages for a variety of reasons, especially once they are nearing adulthood (for example to get married or enlist in the army), the Sarah Knauss claim was therefore viewed by some with slight skepticism. I personally located Knauss in an 1894 church book entry where she had taken communion, but no age was given in this entry. Neither was an age given in the index in the church book from about 1888, where Knauss and her family members were listed. As luck would have it however, a recent discovery of a transcription of the 1890 census for the area Knauss and her family lived in that had been made in 1891 stated that Knauss was ten years old at the time.

While some supercentenarian claimants may be fortunate to have their 1890 census documents transcribed, others may only have documents where they were close to adulthood. The question arises: Is such a document sufficient? Arguments exist on both sides, with some advocating for a stricter “10-year rule,” while others are more lenient with a “20-year rule.”

An example of an index to documents that are available for some American supercentenarians. Note the inconcistencies in age reporting in some of the rows.

Complicating the validation process is the fact that some supercentenarians were either missed in their earliest census records or enumerated with an age inconsistent with their age claim. Mid-life census records, particularly for female supercentenarians, often exhibit mild to severe age deflation. An unvalidated (but documented) example involves a woman claiming to be 17 years younger in the 1920 census than indicated by her earliest document (1880 census) and later-life claims. Notably, the 1900 census stands out as the only census record recording a person’s month and year of birth instead of their age. Many supercentenarians also have a month of birth listed in 1900 that is inconsistent with later-life claims.

The question arises: How much credibility should be given to census records? While they are generally useful to gain insight into whether a person was a supercentenarian, caution is necessary in interpretation. When the supercentenarian claimant did not respond directly, minor inconsistencies may arise, such as a relative misremembering the month or year of their relative’s birth. Thorough validation requires constructing an overarching life story using all available documents, interpreting and weighing each document together.

An example of a U.S. census entry, in this case the 1900 census for Katie Hatton (1877-1992). Note that Hatton (Dolly) is listed as being three years older than claimed, which showcases that the census isn’t always 100% reliable.

A unique scenario arises when a census record supports a supercentenarian being older than claimed. My professional opinion is that to upgrade a deflated supercentenarian claim, two consecutive early-life census records (issued before the age of 20) supporting a higher age are needed, without another early document contradicting them. However, it’s important to note that not all researchers share this view.

The SSDI and SS-5

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) serves as a valuable document for confirming that a person indeed reached the age of 110. However, caution must be exercised in interpreting the SSDI due to instances of ‘ghost cases,’ where a person passed away decades earlier but was only officially registered as deceased at a later date. The index is compiled from a death master file and includes most individuals with a social security number at the time of death (Hill & Rosenwaike, 2001/2002). Covering the time span from 1962 to 2014, recent entries are restricted from public access.

Social Security card application forms (SS-5) also play a crucial role as genealogical tools. These forms often contain information such as the names of a person’s parents and their place of birth. The relatively recent release of SS-5 forms on genealogical websites has facilitated more in-depth research on previously validated supercentenarians. Information from SS-5 forms has helped debunk claims associated with two individuals, Lucy Hannah (1875?/1894?-1993) and Mathew Beard (1870?/1886-1985), who were previously considered supercentenarians.

Other forms of documentation

As mentioned earlier, the United States comprises numerous states, each with its unique set of available documentation. States like New York and New Jersey, for instance, maintained state censuses, while others, like Mississippi, had school censuses. Marriage records spanning various periods from the 19th to the 20th century are accessible in most states. Immigration records are available in the form of passenger lists and naturalization records for some states. Additionally, some states have public address registers for late-life documentation.

Conclusion

In conclusion, although not necessarily as extensive as the documentation found in certain European countries, the United States possesses a diverse array of records that allows for robust age validation of supercentenarians.

 

References

Hill, M. E., & Rosenwaike, I. (2001/2002). The Social Security Administration’s Death Master File: The Completeness of Death Reporting at Older Ages. Social Security Bulletin, 64(1).

Krieger N. (2019). The US Census and the People’s Health: Public Health Engagement From Enslavement and “Indians Not Taxed” to Census Tracts and Health Equity (1790-2018). American journal of public health109(8), 1092–1100. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2019.305017

Mulcahy, B. L. & Ford, C. (2019). Family History – A Concise Beginner’s Overview. Fort Myers Regional Library. https://www.leegov.com/library/Documents/Family-History-Concise-Beginner-Overview.pdf

United States Census Bureau. (n.y.) The “72-Year Rule.” Retrieved 2023-12-17 from: https://www.census.gov/history/www/genealogy/decennial_census_records/the_72_year_rule_1.html

United States Census Bureau. (2021) January 2021. Retrieved 2023-12-17 from: https://www.census.gov/history/www/homepage_archive/2021/january_2021.html

Winkle, K. J. (1994). The United States Census and Community History. The History Teacher, 28(1), 87-101. https://doi.org/10.2307/494293