The Case of the Woman Who Shattered a World Record

Albert B. Lowenfels, MD

Disclosures

March 27, 2014

Longevity and the Compression-of-Disease Concept

As life span increases, geriatricians have become interested in the disease-free part of life when an older person can live independently. The ideal health model, as suggested by Fries in 1980,[11] would be a rectangle with normal health continuing nearly until death. Jeanne Calment's health status came close to that ideal (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Jeanne Calment remained healthy and independent for nearly all of her exceptionally long life, as evidenced by her life timeline, which approaches the ideal or "rectangular" model in which an individual remains active and disease-free until the end of life.

As the size of the geriatric population increases, will an increasing proportion of individuals require assisted living? Jeanne's life is reassuring because she remained independent for 90% of her life, and even in her last few years she remained free of the common mental and physical diseases that afflict older individuals. Her span of healthy life was nearly the same as her total life span, a characteristic of many centenarians.[12]

Summary

Only 1 or 2 persons per 10,000 will become centenarians, and approximately 1 person out of 5 million will become a supercentenarian by living to 110 years or longer, as did Jeanne Calment.[12] The world's current oldest living person is Misao Okawa, a Japanese woman who, at age 116 years, is several years younger than Jeanne Calment's final age.

Sex is a major predictor of longevity; 80% or more of centenarians and supercentenarians are women. Genes are likely to play a central role, and a careful review of family records reveals that Jeanne Calment's family had a large number of long-lived relatives, particularly on the paternal side. Environmental factors such as diet must also play an important role, but Jeanne Calment, other than being a chocolate lover, adhered to no special diet and even smoked an occasional cigarette until shortly before her death.

Throughout her life, Jeanne Calment maintained an optimistic, cheerful attitude that helped her overcome stress. Near the end of her life, she said, "There is no such thing as a terrible ordeal; you just have to find a solution each time." Similar to Jeanne Calment, many centenarians reside outside of major cities in less stressful environments. Two island locations with a surprising number of centenarians are Sardinia, Italy, and Okinawa, Japan.

Another surprising statistic about Jeanne Calment's exceptional age of 122 years is that it almost exactly matches the 120 years mentioned in the Bible as the upper limit of life for humans:

Then the LORD said, "My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: His days shall be 120 years." (Gen. 6:3 [ESV])[13]

With the rapid advances in the genetics of aging, we will soon see whether further increases in healthy life span are possible.

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