Saturday, January 31, 2009

Oldest old

Among my demography colleagues there is considerable academic interest in the 'oldest old,' the people who make 90 year olds seem positively youthful. I once heard a series of talks on "Sardinian Super-Centenarians" (a truly lovely phrase to hear repeated in an Italian accent). So first you're old, then you are really old, then you are a centenarian, then you are a super-centenarian, then, once having turned 100 is ancient history, you get to be oldest old. And once you are oldest old, having outlived many millions of your cohort, lots of people start taking an interest in you. Locals take it as a mark of pride to have someone so incredibly longevous living among them. People wonder what kind of yogurt you eat, and how often. Geneticists want blood samples to find all the things that didn't kill you. Demographers need data on you to know how the rightmost extremes of their graphs of anything over age should look. Is mortality rate higher among 115 year olds than 116 year olds, and what does that tell us about the possibility of increasing human lifespan generally? Is maximum longevity still increasing with improved technology?
It is hard to find very many data points for these questions, and significant resources have been invested in scouring the world for very old people whose ages can be positively verified.

Tuti Yusupova of Uzbekistan is a good example. According to her recently "noticed" birth certificate, she is 128 years old, by far the oldest living person ever recorded. But was the birth certificate really made in 1880, or was it slipped into a folder in 1920 or 2008? Could it be a clerical error? Some priest or bureaucrat may have written the wrong year for some reason. These things are surely being investigated.

And is she the original Tuti? A colleague told me of a case in which a potential oldest woman turned out to have adopted her mother's name, persona and possessions when her mother died. In the process she added 30 years to her age. She was old, but not oldest old. Publicity surrounding her apparent record brought the truth to light. So my colleagues are understandably dubious about the new record holder. If she is that old (which I hope is the case just because a real record is nicer than a fake one) some of my colleagues will have to (slightly) modify their thinking about how long a human being can stay alive.

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