"This Exclusive Club Has One Requirement: 110 Birthday CandlesGerontology Sleuths Search For 'Supercentenarians'; Disproving False Claims"
Staff Reporter for The Wall Street Journal
February 25, 2005; Seal Beach, CA (WSJ; pp. A1, 14) -- Marion Higgins can recite the alphabet backwards, a skill she says her father taught her in the 1890s. She clearly recalls her first train trip, which she dates to 1895, and her first barnstorming airplane ride in 1923. Her memories are marvelous, but can she prove she's really 111 years 244 days old? It turns out she can, which for investigators at the nonprofit Gerontology Research Group makes her a real find -- what they call "a validated Supercentenarian." To join this club, one must be 110 or older. As of today, there are 61 documented living members in the world.
GRG's 40 volunteers -- a loose, international network of demographers, gerontologists, epidemiologists and self-styled "hobbyists" -- are dedicated to verifying the ages of the world's oldest people, and to learning the secrets of their longevity. But to do so, they must contend with dishonest schemers, governments that gleefully support false claims and what researchers call "the invisible barrier of 115."
Because almost no one who reaches age 114 ever sees 115, the group is skeptical of any claims to ages higher than that. GRG investigators dismiss a man now being celebrated in Cuba who says he is 124 but who has no documents. A woman in the Caribbean island nation of Dominica supposedly was 128 when she died in 2003. Her ripe old age was "a falsehood perpetrated by the tourism industry there," says GRG co-founder L. Stephen Coles, a physician and stem-cell researcher at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, where GRG is based. GRG counts just 12 undisputed cases of people ever reaching 115.
Meanwhile, a Maryland man named William Coates got national publicity last year before he died, allegedly at 114. He turned out to be a mere 92. "We had so much information that he was lying," says Robert Young, GRG's senior claims investigator. "He was listed as eight years old in the 1920 Census and 18 in the 1930 Census."
Ms. Higgins, however, is the real thing, the GRG says. Birth and Marriage Certificates show she was born on June 26, 1893. A sharp, lucid, and remarkably healthy woman, she lives with a caregiver in the Leisure World retirement community here. She has grandchildren older than many fellow residents are. She accounts for her longevity by saying, "I never had enough money to engage in riotous living."
That's a typical explanation among her ancient peers, says Dr. Coles. "None of the Supercentenarians know why they lived so long, but they feel compelled to give answers that are funny and satisfying." Earlier this month, Dr. Coles visited Ms. Higgins, in part to ask permission to help conduct her autopsy when she dies. Her 82-year-old son, Horace, said that would be OK.
The 14-year-old GRG, which the Guinness World Records Book now relies on to confirm longevity records, counts 55 women and six men over age 110 world-wide and suspects 200 more are unaccounted for. U.S. Census figures show about 50,000 Americans are over age 100, with 1,388 over 110. Many respondents to the Census are wishful thinkers, impostors, pranksters, or younger folks still cashing their late grandparents' Social Security checks, the GRG says. "We ask people their ages and take them at their word," says a Census spokesman.
Some old people (and their families) exaggerate ages for attention or publicity. Old people often feel ignored and discarded, says GRG's Mr. Young, a 30-year-old former Census worker. "But if you say you're 120 in a small village, suddenly, people pay attention."
In 2003, retired clarinet-player Habib Miyan of India, who claimed to be 132, rode a wave of publicity that led admirers to provide an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. He had no birth records.
Susie Brunson, a child of freed slaves, got a call from President Reagan on what she claimed as her 115th birthday in 1986. When she died in 1994, media reports put her age at 123. But GRG research into early Social Security records now indicates she was probably 105 when she died.
Before he died in Mississippi in 2002, Edward Bankhead claimed he was born in 1883, making him 119. GRG found his World War I draft card, which said he was born in 1899.
Supported by small donations and thousands of volunteer hours, GRG also uses baptismal certificates and painstaking maiden-name computer searches to track down proof or refute lies, especially in nations with spotty records. Old Bibles with family birth dates scribbled inside front covers are usually rejected as documentation.
The oldest human ever certified was a French woman who died at age 122 in 1997. Details on real and fraudulent supercentenarians, past and present, are updated weekly at www.grg.org.
Having spent four decades studying aging issues, Dr. Coles, 63, is among those who see 115 as a barrier that almost nobody can cross. Since 2001, a dozen 114-year-olds died before turning 115. "We've seen it in every culture and civilization we track," says Dr. Coles. According to the GRG, the oldest person alive today -- a woman in the Netherlands -- is 114 years 241 days old.
By accumulating data on Supercentenarians, GRG researchers have found many shared characteristics. Though these people are usually hard of hearing and nearly blind, with very thin skin and limited senses of smell and taste, most of them rarely saw a doctor before age 90. Throughout their lives, most made no conscious effort to eat nutritiously, exercise, or avoid drinking and smoking. None were fat at any time in their lives. Almost all had long-lived relatives, suggesting that the secret is in their genes, not their lifestyle.
Families of Supercentenarians, and their doctors, often resist allowing autopsies. "She died of old age," they say. "What more do you need to know?" "Plenty," argues Dr. Coles. He recently conducted an autopsy of a woman who died at 112. "I held her heart in my hands, her brain in my hands," he says. "We looked at every organ under a microscope." The autopsy showed she likely died of a chemical imbalance in her immune system. Dr. Coles believes that if doctors find answers about superlongevity, the pharmaceutical industry will develop drugs to help the oldest of us survive longer.
At age 111, Ms. Higgins fits the Supercentenarian profile. She was never fat, rarely went to doctors (she takes no medications now), and her dad lived to 101. At 102, she self-published a book about her life as a farm girl, amateur singer and early widow. Just this month, from her wheelchair, she was guest speaker at the Leisure World Kiwanis Club.
She insists she's "not ambitious to be the oldest person in the world." Besides, by some measures, she still feels young. "I hear there are people in China who are over 130," she says.
Write to Jeffrey Zaslow at email@example.com
Jeffrey Zaslow, "This Exclusive Club Has One Requirement: 110 Birthday Candles," The Wall Street Journal, pp. A1, 14 (February 25, 2005).
A link to the WSJ story is on-line .