February 17, 2003

Letter to the Editor of the GRG Supercentenarian Website:
The American Paradox

First, I should say that I found your website to be very interesting. But I found one fact to be very strange! In the Table of all Supercentenarians who ever lived (about 500 of them), there are almost 300 US-Americans. How is this possible? The USA has only about 5 percent of the world's population; I didn't expect that poor or underdeveloped countries would be very common in this "exclusive club," but other highly-developed countries seem under-represented (Germany, Japan). Although China and India are not that developed, they should have at least some Supercentenarians, right? Perhaps, you've not gotten enough information from those countries.

Sincerely yours,

Christian Quast

Reply from Mr. Robert Young of Atlanta, Georgia

Dear Sir:

Such a question is akin to asking why the world map from the 1400's didn't have the New World on it. To be honest, no scientific technology has ever been developed that allows one to determine accurately a person's age through scientific testing. Thus, the only way to verify a person's age is to track the verified written record of that person. In order to verify a person's age, there must be written records. Let's go back in time a few years. In 1960, no man had been in space yet, and the Super Bowl was yet to be invented. In 1940, Pearl Harbor had yet to be bombed, major league baseball was all white, and there were no atomic weapons.

When Strom Thurmond was born in 1902, the airplane had yet to be invented. In 1895, there were no Ford automobiles. The motion picture was invented in 1893. That was 110 years ago. Today's list of verified Supercentenarians is a snapshot of the past; the youngest listed member currently was born January 1, 1893. We are talking about a time where places like the state of Georgia and South Carolina didn't have birth certificates yet (but fortunately the census was already in place).

In 1893 and earlier, the only nations in the world that had a complete system of birth registration were Sweden, England, the Netherlands, Japan, and a few other Nordic nations. The United States had a patchwork of record-keeping, as did most other European nations, but these were not yet complete.

Now, get out your Encyclopedia Britannica. Look up the Human Lifespan article in the Propaedia (under Human Growth and Development) and chances are, it's a 1972 version that still mentions the oldest verified person of all time as Pierre Joubert of Canada at 113 years, 124 days. The problem is, Mr. Joubert was actually two people, Joubert, Sr. [1701 - 1766] and Joubert, Jr. [1732 - 1814]. This error was not discovered until 1991!

The first nation in the world with complete birth registration was Sweden, beginning in 1749. Thus, by 1860, Swedish records were complete. Birth registration in the UK began in 1837, meaning the records were complete by the 1940's. Japan, eager to be a rising star and match the "West" after the Meiji restoration in 1868, began birth registration in 1879 (thus, Japanese cases from 1878 and earlier are progressively more suspect the further back you go, and more believable the more recent they are).

The modern field of Demographic Gerontology began in the 1870's, with noted British skeptic William Thoms. He proposed a set of rules for judging whether a centenarian case was true or false, including the idea that if someone claimed to be, say, 113 now, you should check 13 years earlier to see if they celebrated their 100th birthday.

The field progressed sporadically over the years, with people from Young to Bowerman to Alexander Graham Bell investigating claims of extreme longevity, finding some to be false and others to be credible. However, this field remained a backwater until the 1970's.

As recently as 1973, National Geographic Magazine ran a story on the 140-year-olds of the Caucasus, USSR (later discredited), and the oldest living American was said to be "ex-slave" Charlie Smith, who was alleged to be 137 years old. Subsequently, a re-check by National Geographic's Prof. Alexander Leaf showed these claims to be false; he had noticed the 140-year old Lhaf Khasuria was claiming to be born before her mother! Meanwhile, the Charlie Smith claim was proven to be false in 1979, just six months before his death. His marriage license listed him as 35 on January 8, 1910, making him no older than 105 (and not an ex-slave) when he died in October 1979. Indeed, one should have suspected his tall-tale claims to have rode with Jesse James and other stories to have been made up.

Thus began a "new" era of skepticism, which Guinness instituted by giving the Guinness title to "fully verified" Mr. Shigechiyo Izumi, age 113. Izumi went on to live to 120, dying in 1986. The case was questioned in 1991; it seems that even some Japanese scholars believed that he was only 105 years old, having used the birth date of his elder brother. (The case remains unresolved as of today.)

Since 1986, no Guinness "world's oldest person" case has been questioned. Guinness gradually progressed to today's "three-document" standard which makes the inclusion of a false case now virtually impossible. However, the problem with the Guinness lists even today is that they list only the world's oldest person, maybe the oldest man, oldest American, oldest British person, etc. But, this system excludes second place, third place, and all the people aged 110 and over who might never reach the top of the list. Thus, in 1999 the Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group began publishing Mr. Louis Epstein's list of "Validated Supercentenarians," persons aged 110 or more, on their website. I joined in supporting this effort in July 1999, and fairly quickly a coalition of international demographic investigators coalesced.

If you were to look back at the 1999 list, you will notice it was not very long -- only 69 names. The European countries such as England and France began adding their cases first, and soon it was heavy with Europeans. This did not change until 2002, when the massive Kestenbaum Study was released, adding more than 262 U.S. cases. Also, research by myself and Mr. Epstein of New York has added dozens more U.S. cases.

It should be noted, however, that records for England and Wales are complete for the period [1966 - 2001], but that U.S. records still are not complete. U.S. records are mostly complete for [1980 - 2000]. Records for the Netherlands are complete since the 1950's.

Nations like China and India have not been included due to the fact that no demographic investigators has come forward to demonstrate proven cases. Indeed, the first Indian case was added in December 2002, this being "Scotland's oldest person" Lucy D'Abreu. (Lucy was actually born in India.) Seeing that the Indian census began in 1901, it should be theoretically possible to prove the ages of at least those from the middle class and above. However, no one has yet to do so.

With regard to Germany, German records are so few because the German government has strict confidentiality laws that do not allow the release of such information. Thus, the only cases we have are where individuals were born in Germany and moved to the U.S., or if a family member in Germany volunteered to share information on a case.

As far as Japan is concerned, Japan releases a list of the top 20 oldest persons in Japan once a year. In the future, we may have more records from Japan, and you will note the increasing number of Japanese records since 1996.

To sum up, do you ask why so many Americans have won the World Series? Seriously, these lists are not reflective of the world population, but they are reflective of the world's efforts to provide validated data in this narrow field.

Surely you must know the vast majority of the world claims to be older than 110 are false, but if we were omniscient surely there would be quite a few more Chinese and Indian cases. Of course, China is still a Communist nation (people forget that) and the free flow of information is currently stifled. China, spurning the rest of the world, gave the "World's Oldest Person" title in their Guinness Edition to a Chinese woman. Thus, in the "free world" the World's Oldest Person is Kamato Hongo of Japan, but in the Chinese world, the "World's Oldest Person" is a Chinese woman! This is a mere reflection of nationalistic propaganda bias. If this woman really were 116, producing a scientific paper to prove her age would go much further than intentionally disregarding the standards set by the rest of the world. The shortfalls of the list are a reflection of the world we live in today, where births in nations like Ethiopia still go unrecorded in the rural areas [Sigh!]. It could take another 150 years before the world picture is complete; but this does not mean that we should not continue to add our own brush-strokes because the rest of the world is so far behind. You will note the U.S. population, at 290 million, is more than twice that of any other developed nation, Japan being at most 127 million.

I hope that this information helps to explain the logical basis for this seeming paradox.

Very truly yours,

Robert Young
Senior Claims Investigator
Gerontology Research Group