Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
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Senescence and sensibility

Old-timers who give new meaning to the words "live long and prosper"

Da Vinci and his code notwithstanding, the search for the Holy Grail is arguably the greatest treasure hunt in history. While the nature of that famous cup has been hotly debated for centuries, the reason it entices skeptics and believers alike is because of one singular, romantic notion -- eternal life.

A sip from the Grail, after all, is purported to bestow upon the drinker that most precious of all prizes. But as tempting as it may be to believe otherwise, there are limits to human cellular longevity. Even rogue, science-fiction-style research suggests human lifespans topping out at 150 years -- max.

While it may not be as much fun as a summer blockbuster, the Bible is a veritable treasure trove of accounts of human longevity. As anyone who's ever had the faith or stamina to get through the patriarchal anthologizing in the Book of Genesis can attest, living hundreds of years seemed to be the rule, rather than the exception in antediluvian times.

Even now, the name Methuselah -- the grandaddy of all geezers, reportedly living to the ripe old age of 969 -- is synonymous with long life. In reality, however, it is women, not men, who live an average seven to 10 years longer throughout the world. Statistically, roughly 80 percent of all centenarians are women.

Each period in history has had its fair share of claimants of extreme longevity, most of whom were more myth than history. The first reliable case of someone attaining the milestone of becoming a so-called supercentenarian -- living to 110 years or more -- was, surprisingly, a man. Geert Adriaans Boomgaard, believed to have been a soldier in Napoleon's Army, was born on September 21, 1788 in Groningen, the Netherlands, the place he called home until his death on February 3, 1899, aged 111.

Since then, about 800 supercentenarian cases have been blessed with scholarly acceptance. Of them, only one in 15 made it to the age of 114 (roughly 53 in total); one in 44 to 115 (roughly 18 in total). In the general population, the odds of reaching the age of 115 are about one in 2.1 billion.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, people slowly became fascinated by tales of elders who outlived the century, and painters and artists catalogued the faces and forms of self-proclaimed long-livers. Back then, any Tom, Dick or Harry with a wrinkled, wizened face could claim virtually impossible ages such as 140, 150 or even beyond without the public saying boo. The cult of longevity continues to this day.

Circus Act
The 19th century was an equally fertile time for longevity myths, though historians were finally beginning to discredit the multitude of ridiculous claimants from earlier times, many of whom had attained the status of national heroes, such as England's famous Countess Catherine of Desmond, who supposedly reached 140 years (1464-1604), and celebrity supercentenarian Thomas Parr, whose gravestone at Westminster Abbey lists his age of death at 152 years (1483-1635), among many others.

Infamous Canadian old-timer Pierre Joubert was believed until recently to have reached the age of 113, when in fact he had simply used the birth records of his identically named father. Pierre Jr. was actually only 82 when he died in 1814. Indeed, separating fact from fiction would be nearly impossible until the advent of reliable birth records later in the 1800s.

The travelling carnivals and sideshows with which Europeans and North Americans were enamoured during these years, often had an old geezer or two stuck in among the bearded ladies and two-headed calfs.

By far the most well-known of these creaky celebrities was Joice Heth, a blind and paralyzed African-American slave supposedly purchased by a young P.T. Barnum in 1835. In his very first foray into showmanship, Barnum set her up in a New York hotel room and recast her as the oldest person alive at 161, claiming she'd been the boyhood nurse of George Washington. Heth obliged the crowds by sharing stories of the good old days with George, while she earned him a fortune -- roughly $1500 a week.


When the public tired of the act, Barnum cleverly wrote anonymous letters to local papers claiming that Heth was in fact a "curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, India-rubber and numbers springs," knowing that the rumour would entice people back to see if it were true.

After Heth died on February 19, 1836, Barnum continued to milk the story by presiding over a very public autopsy (admission: $0.50) intended to confirm her age. The unimpressed pathologist pronounced her to have been roughly 80 years old. The shamed showman went on to claim that both the body and the doctor were fakes, and that Heth was living out her golden years at a secluded location.

Homegrown Talent
The name of the game when it comes to longevity, of course, is proving it. According to the Guinness Book of World Records -- the undisputable go-to source for this and such other important scientific wonders as Longest Ear Hair and Most-Obese Twins -- and corroborated by independent research, the oldest confirmed supercentenarian was Jeanne Louise Calment.

The French woman, born February 21, 1875, and died August 4, 1997, lived to a methuselan 122 years and a half. By all accounts, she was a sassy old bird, having quit smoking at age 117 because her blindness left her too embarrassed to ask people to light her cigarettes. Among her famous quotes: "I have only one wrinkle, and I'm sitting on it."

Calment blew the competition out of the water, passing the torch upon her death to local girl Marie-Louise Meilleur (August 29, 1880 - April 16, 1998) of Kamouraska, Quebec, who lived to the age of 117. Others claimed to have come close to Calment, though enough doubt has been cast to keep them from the record books.

Most notable of these was Shigechiyo Izumi of Japan, who died in 1986 at the alleged age of 120, which would make him the second-oldest person ever. Evidence that came to light after Izumi's death suggests he may have used the name and birth records of a much older brother who'd died in early childhood.

Of course, record-keeping back in the 19th century certainly was not what it is today, and so many longevity claims can only be partially validated, since less-reliable secondary and often self-reported sources such as church records or census records must be depended upon.

After Marie-Louise Meilleur died, a succession of women have held the title of world's oldest, ranging in age from 114 to 119, with the current confirmed claimant being 117-year-old Maria Esther de Capovilla of Ecuador, born September 14, 1889, and the last surviving known person from the 1880s. Despite being given last rites at age 100 during a bout with illness, Maria -- who grew up drinking donkey milk -- pulled through and is still going strong. Fourth down the list? Another Quebecer, Julie Winnefred Bertrand of Montreal, who will hopefully turn 115 on September 16.

Hope Springs Eternal
Perhaps the secret to long life lies waiting to be discovered in the natural world. Until recently, the world's oldest animal was a giant tortoise by the name of Adwaitya. She died a few months ago at the Calcutta Zoo at the ripe old age of about 250 years, proving once and for all that the tortoise definitely beats the hare -- whose average life expectancy is roughly five to 10 years.

Assuming the title was 176-year-old Harriet, another giant tortoise, born in the Galápagos Islands. She resided at the Australia Zoo for the past couple of decades until her recent death, June 23. The mechanisms of the tortoise's delayed aging process remain unknown.

And then there's that lone bristlecone pine tree in California's White Mountains, just east of the Sierra Nevada. Studies on core samples taken by dendrochronologists have revealed its age to be approximately 4700 years. It is believed to be the oldest living organism on the planet. Its name? Methuselah, of course. Since an even older tree, Prometheus, was chopped down in 1964, the US Forest Service wisely keeps Methuselah's exact location a secret, perhaps for fear it would end up powdered, encapsulated and sold over the Internet for $49.95 a bottle.

Ultimately, disease and decay are part and parcel of the natural process of aging, even though we've dared believe otherwise since our first sentient moment. The Ancient Egyptians thought the mummification process offered them a literal continuation of life into the next world. The Greeks and Romans were sweet on honey, believing it could give them a few extra years. The conquistadores and Ponce de León searched for the Fountain of Youth in Florida in 1513, and many modern-day Canadians believe they found it there.

But whether we seek it out in a chimerical chalice, a gushing spring, pregnant mare urine or even an aging portrait in the attic, the prospect of eternal life will always remain seductive.


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