Source: Guardian
Date: 1 February 2007

Aren't the oldest people alive
getting younger these days?

Tim Dowling

Who would want to be the world's oldest living person? The title has always been a bit of a poisoned chalice - there being only one way to pass it on to someone younger - but lately, the race to the top spot has become uncharacteristically competitive.

Last Sunday, 114-year-old Yone Minagawa of Japan acceded to the title, following the death of Emma Faust Tillman, also 114. Tillman had held the post for four days, following the death of Emiliano Mercado del Toro, 115, the previous Wednesday. Del Toro had only just taken over from 115-year-old Julie Winnifred Bertrand of Canada, who predeceased him by six days. Ms Bertrand claimed the title from Elizabeth Bolden of Tennessee, who died on December 12, aged 116. Bolden had a comparatively long stint: she was in the post for three and a half months. The previous incumbent, Maria Capovilla of Ecuador, had hung on for nine.

According to a gerontology expert employed by Guinness World Records, the average term of office for a world's oldest living person is about eight months, but these days even the Guinness people have trouble keeping pace (their website was yesterday still two record-holders behind). The current revolving door is a far cry from the reign of Jeanne Calment of Arles, who held the title for six and a half years, from 1991 to 1997, before she died at the age of 122. She was born in 1875, and once sold Van Gogh a pencil.

We are used to hearing stories about increasing longevity - they're so commonplace now that the retreat of mortality is presented as a threat to pension provision rather than a miracle of modern medicine - but it's clearly a different story at the top end of the game. The lifespan of the world's oldest living person has dropped from 116 years, 347 days to 114 years, 28 days (and counting, fingers crossed) in less than six months, even as our average life expectancy outpaces the wildest forecasts of actuaries. At this rate, we're all in with a chance. You wouldn't put any big money on Pete Doherty taking the crown, but an each-way bet on Rod Stewart doesn't sound so crazy. We might well live to see the day.
and further reading

The Indy Gene
Immortal Youth?
Longevity Genes
Yoda the Ancient
Reengineering the body?
Caloric restriction prolongs life
New treatments for aging brains
Healthier, happier and longer life?
World's Oldest Supercentenarians