The Case of the Woman Who Shattered a World Record

Albert B. Lowenfels, MD

Disclosures

March 27, 2014

A Brief Biography of the Patient

Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) lived to be 122 years and 164 days old. Her record, established in 1997, still stands. She became a widow at the age of 67 years, and by the age of 88 years she had no living relatives.

Jeanne Calment was born, grew up, and spent her life in Arles, located in Southern France. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. Photograph of Jeanne Calment taken the year before she died. Image via AP.

Born in the latter part of the 19th century, Jeanne grew up just at the beginning of scientific medicine. Most of the diagnostic and therapeutic modalities that we depend on to keep us healthy were not available during her childhood. Her father was a well-to-do shipbuilder, and she grew up in comfortable circumstances. At age 21 years, she married her cousin, a successful local merchant whose income enabled her to live without having to work. She was an energetic, accomplished woman who enjoyed sports, listening to music, and playing the piano. Even at the end of her exceptionally long life, she retained vivid memories of her childhood, such as a meeting with Vincent Van Gogh in 1888, when he painted in Provence. She described him as "ugly and ungracious."[1]

At age 100 years, Jeanne was still independent, living in her own home, walking around Arles, and riding her bicycle. At age 110 years, she moved out of her house into a nursing home, where she lived for the remaining 12 years of her life. Although without any living relatives or old friends, she greatly enjoyed the frequent visits of journalists and researchers who tested her memory with standardized questions. She loved these sessions because they gave her a chance to share the stored memories of a happy life.

Jeanne had an optimistic outlook on life and a strong sense of humor. When asked what she believed to be the secret for her longevity, she replied, "Always keep a smile. I attribute my long life to that. I believe I will die laughing. That's my program."[1]

When a visitor to her nursing home said, "Maybe I'll see you next year," she returned, "Why not? You don't seem to be in such bad health."[1]

After receiving a box of chocolates from another visitor, she remarked, "Those won't become centenarians."[1]

And in response to a visitor who said, "You'll live to be 120," she replied, "Why be so pessimistic?"[1]

Can We Be Certain About Jeanne Calment's Age?

Unlike other reports concerning extreme old age, the evidence supporting Jeanne's age of 122 years and 164 days is overwhelming because it comes from civil records such as her birth certificate, marriage certificate, and additional civil documents. Her date of birth is confirmed in local parish records, which recorded her age and the dates of events including her baptism and marriage. It is fortunate that the Town of Arles maintained meticulous birth records for so long. Furthermore, external facts confirm her memory of early childhood events, providing further evidence for her extreme longevity.

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