We're Growing Grayer

by Patricia McBroom

The oldest living person in the world reached her 120th birthday Feb. 21 in Arles, France, and Berkeley demographers toasted her health at a birthday party here.

"This is an historic occasion. It's the first time someone has attained such a great age--at least someone we can authenticate," said John Wilmoth, assistant professor of demography.

The Berkeley party, which drew students and faculty members, was co-sponsored by the Department of Demography and the campus's new Center for the Economics and Demography of Aging.

Research at the center is tracking worldwide changes in the longevity and health of elderly populations.

"We've thought there was a maximum age beyond which no one could live, but I think that's a common myth. So far, we've seen a continuous rise in achieved age," Wilmoth said.

"I don't think we can live forever, but we haven't yet been able to find a fixed limit for the human lifespan," said Wilmoth. Consistent with this upward trend in longevity, increasing numbers of people are living to be 100 years old.

Centenarians used to be extremely rare, said Wilmoth. Now there are more than 20,000 in the United States. There is even a name for people who reach the age of 110. They are called "super centenarians."

The Berkeley celebration mirrored one in France, where demographers from throughout Europe descended on the small southern French town where Jeanne Louise Calment now lives in a nursing home.

Born in 1875, Madame Calment can still see (somewhat) and hear (somewhat) and is mentally coherent, although her memory is not quite up to date and she has not been ambulatory for several years. But she can sing the Marseillaise (French national anthem), said Wilmoth.

Madame Calment is listed as the oldest living human in the British Guinness Book of Records, where it is noted that she once met Vincent Van Gogh in her father's shop. Van Gogh died in 1890.

A Japanese man may have lived as long as Madame Calment, but his age cannot be absolutely verified, said Wilmoth. The next oldest human being was 115 when she died, said the demographer, who got the idea for a birthday party from colleagues in Denmark.

Wilmoth has recently detected an increase in the maximum longevity of particular national populations, suggesting that the upper limit on the human life span is slowly rising over time by about one year for every two decades.

In Sweden, which has kept the best records in the world, there has been a remarkably steady trend upward in the maximum age achieved by the elderly population over a period of 130 years, said Wilmoth.


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