Whenever anyone in my family had a birthday, my late grandfather would raise a glass to toast: "Here’s to 120." He was far from alone in his wish for extreme longevity, with countless works in both fiction and nonfiction dedicated to the hunt for remote "Shangri-La" communities where average lifespans defy normal experience.
So when news circulated recently about a new record for the world’s oldest person—a Bolivian man who claimed to be 123 years old—my curiosity was piqued. I emailed Steven Austad, a researcher at the University of Texas Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, to ask what we might learn from this man and others who reach such venerable ages.
His quick answer surprised me: "The most common thread among people like this Bolivian man is poor documentation of birth, helped along by illiteracy. There are many, many reasons to discount this record as sheer fantasy."
My bubble now burst, I wondered how he could know with such certainty that the man was lying in this particular case, being in an office in Texas and not Bolivia. Is it actually impossible to live to 120?
Though it’s not impossible, it is highly improbable. The biggest giveaway in the news from Bolivia was the man’s gender. About one in a million people live beyond the age of 110, and 90% of them are women. The oldest man that we know about for sure was, at 115.5 years old, about seven years younger than the oldest verified woman, Jeanne Calment from France. (There is no biological test for human age, and so in individual cases, verified birth and life records are the clincher. Calment is actually the only person currently verified to have lived to over 120, according to Gerontology Research Group, which tracks claims.)
"These stories pop up every couple of years from somewhere around the world. First of all, it is almost always a man," says Austad. "Every time one of these cases pops up, I know it’s going to be some guy with no birth records and no health care."
Many reported cases of very old individuals or "clusters" of them are eventually debunked—not because we’re dealing with spates of senior citizen fraudsters, but usually records are lost, names are confused, and memories are fuzzy. The most famous cluster of centenarians in Ecuador turned out, upon further investigation, to have an average age of 80-something.
Longevity clusters can exist, but these are probably related to genes and chance—not magical lifestyles and diets. Normally, life choices do play a major role in setting mortality, but for individuals who make it past 100, genes become a much larger determining factor. Super-longevity tends to run in families, Austad says. (Austad himself is studying a 500-year-old clam to figure out what he can about longevity. Clams are apparently much easier to study than humans.)
None of this will stop the hunt for the secrets to leading a healthy, happy, dozen-decade-plus life, whether by explorers, gurus, or the bevy of scientists who study ways to forestall the process of natural aging and death.
"There’s something very deep about human psychology that the Shangri-La idea just has a grip on us," says Austad. "It’s like another way of thinking there was an Eden."
The funny thing is that the hunt's focus is probably misplaced. While scientists have advanced their understanding of how animals lead extended lives, translating most anti-aging findings to humans is a feat no one is even close to accomplishing. And when it comes to improving overall public health—-despite depressing reports about rising obesity and failed cancer "cures"—the long-term view of advances in medicine, nutrition and technology gives reason for hope. "Health has just been rocketing upward for the last 150 years like crazy," Austad says. He has put his money on it—a wager, set up in a trust fund for his heirs, that by 2050, someone will be born who will live to 150.