If you open an article dedicated to supercentenarians, it is very likely that at its very beginning, you will see the name of Jeanne Calment, the oldest known person in the world, who is believed to have lived for up to 122 years. Jeanne is not merely a unique phenomenon from the point of view of statistics; over the years, she became a symbol of extraordinary human capacities.
For a person who sticks to a healthy lifestyle or even engages in biohacking in order to live longer, Jeanne’s record is a teasing goal to achieve and surpass; however, to the researchers of aging, this extremely rare event is rather a reason for curiosity – and skepticism.
A couple of weeks ago at the joint meeting of the Gerontological Society of RAS and the Gerontology Department of Moscow Society of Naturalists (Moscow State University), there was a report by Nikolay Zak, who holds a PhD in physico-mathematical sciences, that shed new light on the case of Jeanne Calment. The main hypothesis of this independent investigation is that the person who we know as Jeanne Calment is actually her daughter, Yvonne, who took the place of her mother after her death in 1934 in order to help her family avoid heavy financial losses related to inheritance.
The initiator of this independent investigation, Valery Novoselov, assistant professor of the Department of Gerontology and Geriatrics of RUDN University (Moscow), is convinced that Calment’s case has to be revalidated.
We need practical solutions – and this is why any data concerning aging should be robust
In Russia, Valery Novoselov is mostly known for his studies of medical documents of historic persons such as Vladimir Lenin. His review of medical archives dedicated to shedding light on the real causes of death of this great Russian politician is ready but, so far, remains unpublished; there are too many stakeholders interested in this issue, including people who would probably prefer to see politically motivated malice behind Lenin’s death.
While Valery discusses the hurdles involved in gathering the relevant data, and the warnings of his lawyer, I find myself thinking about a simple yet shocking truth: the quality of medical data and its public availability can literally make history. It makes a great introduction to the main topic of our conversation.
E. (Elena Milova) – Valery, you are currently involved in revalidating longevity records. What was your motivation to engage in these investigations in the first place?
V. (Valery Novoselov) – You know, my main focus of interest is people. I don’t like to deal with animals, because I believe that due to evolutionary mechanisms, the processes of aging in different species are not homologous. So, I am only interested in analyzing human data with some practical application of the results. Back in 2016, I was curious how many centenarians there were in the Moscow region. I live here, so it could be feasible to gather the data and even meet these people to conduct a survey and collect information about the factors that could have promoted their longevity. You see, there are Blue Zones where there are many centenarians, and the data about their lifestyle can probably explain their longevity. However, most of Russia is located in a totally different climate zone, and what is known about the life-extending lifestyles of, say, Mediterranean countries cannot be applied to our latitude.
V. – So, I was curious about the centenarians in the Moscow region, and I have sent requests to two different agencies: the Department of Labor and Social Security and the Federal Agency of Statistics. They provided me with two absolutely different sets of data. The one from the agency gave me 4135 people aged 100 and older, and the Department of Labor gave me 735 people. 6-fold difference. In my conversations with people working in these organizations, there were many surprises. First of all, they themselves were not sure about the numbers. Second, there were hallmarks of unreliability, such as a huge prevalence of centenarians only in the regions of Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, and a steep growth in this age group in one year – up to 30%. We requested personal information on these people, as this is the only way to check the real numbers. However, the main idea here is this: too much variance of data is likely an indicator of errors. In centenarians, the possibility of error is the highest.
The case of Jeanne does not look like it fits into the survival curve models developed by the leading demographers of aging
E. – So, what was the starting point in the investigation of Jeanne Calment’s case? What was the first thing that caused the initial skepticism?
V. – In the last few years, there were many interesting articles on the survival curve of centenarians and supercentenarians. Some of them were written by Leonid and Natalia Gavrilovs and some by Elisabetta Barbi and her colleagues, and despite their differing views on the survival plateaus of marginal age groups, the case of Jeanne Calment didn’t fit into any of the refined math models behind their studies. If we imagine the curves of survival in these studies, Jeanne is a dot away from the main trend that they describe. One more reason for suspicion is how far from other longevity records her age is. There are only two cases of this kind: Jeanne and Sarah Knauss, whose record is 119 years. All other supercentenarians are several years apart from them. Several years of difference in my or your age is nothing surprising compared to the same difference in very old age. Most longevity records are very close to one another. Whenever a new record is set, the person dies several days or several weeks later, very rarely several months later. However, we are never speaking about years apart, definitely not several years. Furthermore, we looked at the French database of supercentenarians of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (there are 49 such French people), and we have found that Jeanne was the first (by birth date) validated supercentenarian in France and that she is also the most long-lived person in the world. It is a very unlikely combination of events from the point of view of statistics.
E.- Yeah, this sounds somewhat counterintuitive. It would be more logical if people who were born later than Jeanne would preserve their health for longer and live longer, as they would have access to more advanced medical technologies.
V. – That too. We know from history that there were many cases when people had exaggerated their ages, but it was much easier to reveal because it was most often in men, and as you know, men tend to live shorter lives than women, so in old age, the number of women is much higher. But Jeanne is a woman, so her longevity is by default less surprising and suspicious. Nevertheless, there was a big commission that was formed to validate supercentenarians. In France, such an organization is funded by the French pharmaceutical company Ipsen.
From suspicion to revalidation of the case
E. – So, you started to check the data from this validation group?
V. – I had many ideas at once. I am a geriatrician, and in my work, I rely on visual assessment a lot. My eyes were telling me that Jeanne didn’t have the hallmarks of frailty that would correspond to her official age, such as the fact that unlike other supercentenarians, she was able to sit straight in her chair without others’ help. I didn’t see enough signs of dermal atrophy nor atrophy of subcutaneous tissue. Most of all, it was my clinical experience that made me question Jeanne’s age and believe that we will find something interesting.
V. – As a first step, I decided to run a survey to see how people assessed Jeanne’s age by comparing her photos and videos to the photos and videos of other supercentenarians. The participants (233 random people) were massively reducing her age by around 20-25 years compared to her official age on the date when this picture was taken. There was one more person with the same perception, the Major of Arles. He is responsible for congratulating people who have reached 100, and, in accordance with tradition, he should have visited Jeanne. However, she said that instead she would prefer to come along. This willingness to take a walk across the city is already surprising in a 100-year-old, but apart from that, the Mayor, who was used to dealing with centenarians, didn’t recognise his hero of the occasion in a spry old lady sitting in his lobby.
E. – What was the next stage of the investigation?
V. – I invited a young mathematician, Nikolay Zak, to help me analyze the existing datasets on supercentenarians and see if Jeanne could fit in. He has found that she could not. The models developed by him claimed that if we rely on the laws of statistics, Jeanne as a phenomenon should not exist. It was such a big surprise to Nikolay that he decided to personally revalidate this case. His French is fairly good, so he reached out to the holders of the archives in Arles, found some volunteers there, and started to check every small detail.
V. – You know, on most of the occasions when I raised the issue with my colleagues, their first counterargument was “How could an error or even a deception take place if Jeanne lived in a small city where people knew one another very well?” It turns out that this was a misconception, as Arles was one of the biggest French communes at that time with 38 thousand people (even now, not every Moscow satellite city has that many people), and apart from that, Jeanne didn’t live in the city all the time; she and her daughter often spent their time in a homestead 16 kilometers away from Arles. The more that Nikolay checked, the more that small inconsistencies, errors, and even signs of intentional fraud were revealed. After looking at all the data that Nikolay has managed to collect, including the known intentional destruction of the family archive on Jeanna’s orders, we developed a hypothesis that is now being checked. In 1934, there was a death in the Calment family. The official story is that in 1934, Jeanne had lost her only daughter, Yvonne. We think that in reality it was Jeanne who had died, aged almost 59, and her daughter took her name and personality.
E. – Detective work teaches us that a person who is suspected to have broken the law should have had some sort of motive for that.
V. – Indeed, and there was a motive. The 1930s were dire years for the family. Her mother in law and her father both died in 1931, and the family had to pay huge inheritance taxes in each case. Unlike their levels at the beginning of the century, these taxes were up to 35% of the property’s cost, as the government was likely preparing for the next world war. We could expect the family to be in quite a miserable financial situation. If Jeanne had died, her daughter Yvonne and her husband would have to pay a lot of money. However, if it were Yvonne who died, the family wouldn’t have to pay any taxes, as she didn’t own the homestead.
Dealing with the archive… or its absence
E. – Is there more precise proof that Yvonne has replaced Jeanne?
V. – We suspect that the passport of Jeanne, which was issued by the French gendarmerie in the 1930s, can be considered to be proof of replacement. The features described in the passport, such as eye color and height, do not correspond to the features of Jeanne when she was old. There is another interesting fact, too. In case of death, the usual formal procedures require a witness to look at the body and sign the statement of death. How you would do it normally, if one of your relatives would suddenly die? You would spare yourself the effort and would call some neighbors, I guess. This was not the case, as an old stranger living far away was invited instead. When I say old, I mean around 70 years old, and, at that time, this could have meant a lot of health issues, including sight problems. Why invite total strangers from far away, and why should they be old?
E. – Yes, this sounds weird. Right, these are suspicious documents, but if we are talking about a family conspiracy, there should be some unconscious leaks in their behavior or speech.
V. – There are, of course. For instance, Yvonne’s husband Joseph Charles Frédéric Billot never got remarried, despite the fact that he was only 42 at the moment of her “death”. There were many mentions that he was getting along very well with Jeanne and they were raising Yvonne’s son Frédéric Jean Paul together. You would expect a husband to treat his own wife well, wouldn’t you? The kid, by the way, was calling Jeanne “mamzanne”, that is, Mom Jeanne. It also looks unusual. Next, Jeanne used to mention the maid that took her to school. Nikolay has found the date of birth of this maid, Marthe Fousson, in the birth certificate, and year of birth in the census of 1911, and it turns out that she was 10 years younger than Jeanne, which means that she could only be taking her daughter Yvonne to school. Hunting was an important part of her lifestyle, but the age of her first hunt jumped around impressively in the span of 20 years.
E. – Documents, behavior, anything else?
V. – The last test was based on the photos. As you know, even if people age, most proportions of the face, such as the distance between the eyes, the nose shape, and the level of the hairline in women don’t change. Some of them don’t change at all, as they are defined by the skull shape. Nikolay suggested placing the pictures of young and old Jeanne together and seeing if the proportions match. It turns out that the features of the young Yvonne match the features of the old Jeanne. However, when you compare the features of the young Jeanne to the old Jeanne, they don’t match. Surprising, isn’t it?
E. – A finding of this scale should have shaken the academic community. How did your fellow researchers of aging respond to the preliminary results of the investigation?
V. – There was some initial skepticism, but after a proper exchange of data with my Russian and foreign colleagues, there is a growing interest in seeing the results of this investigation. The president of the Gerontological Society of RAS, Vladimir Anisimov, encourages us to keep investigating until we find the truth. As you probably know, the main professional organization that is performing validation is the Gerontology Research Group. It is currently led by Robert D. Young, who is also a Senior Consultant for Gerontology at Guinness World Records. I was very pleased with his interest and support. Working together, we will hopefully come to a definitive conclusion sooner.
E. – It is nice to learn that the community is open to the idea of revalidation.
V. – Indeed. However, I am asking myself why the revalidation was not initiated earlier, as the more you dig, the more questions arise. I have found a hint to a possible explanation in the book “L’assurance et ses secrets” (Insurance and its secrets) by Jean-Pierre Daniel that was published in 2007. Here it is:
V. – “Chacun se souvient de Jeanne Calment officiellement morte à 122 ans, le 4 août 1997, Il avait été dit à l’époque que cette dame bénéficiait d’une rente viagère, ce qui etait vrai. Celle-ci etait versée par une grande société française que cette longévité exceptionelle ne réjouissait pas. La société était d’autant plus marrie qu’elle savait pertinemment qu’elle ne payait pas Jeanne Calment, mais sa fille. En effect, au décès de la vraie Jeanne Calment, sa fille qui évidemment n’était plus une gamine, avait endossé l’identité de sa mère pour continuer à toucher la rente. La société d’assurance avait découvert l’usurpation d’identité, mais en accord – ou à la demande ? – des pouvoirs publics, elle n’avait pas souhaité la dénoncer tant le personnage de la “doyenne des Français” était devenu mythique.”
V. – “Everyone remembers Jeanne Calment, who has officially died at age 122 on August 4, 1997. It was said at the time that this lady had benefited from having a life annuity, which was true. This was paid by a large French company that was not happy at all with this exceptional longevity. The company was even more upset as it knew that it had been paying not Jeanne Calment, but her daughter. In reality, after the death of the real Jeanne Calment, her daughter who obviously was no longer a child, had taken her mother’s identity to keep receiving the annuity. The insurance company had discovered identity theft, but in agreement with – or on the demand of? – the public authorities, it had not wished to reveal the truth, given how much the character of the “grandmother of the French” had become legendary.”
E. – So, there were some players involved who would apparently prefer to protect the image of a national hero, even if it meant sacrificing the accuracy of data used for scientific studies?
V. – It could be. However, I would also consider another prerequisite for this particular situation. It is a lack of focusing on the most important goals and lack of a spirit of rebellion in the scientific community. I’ll explain why I think so. What is the main goal of gerontology as a science? It is to help people remain healthy and live longer. If you are setting this as a goal, it is obvious that you could not stand it if the data on your hands were questionable. If you want science to progress and to bear fruit such as reliable lifestyle recommendations or a new drug to slow down aging, even a slight suspicion should be enough to spark further investigation in order to make the data as robust as possible. A spirit of rebellion is absolutely necessary to be able to follow your scientific intuition despite the accepted views.
E. – Rebellion, I like that! Well, what will be the next step of your investigation? Do you plan to contact Guinness World Records to let them know that the case of Jeanne Calment likely requires revalidation?
V. – We already sent them our materials and are waiting for a reply. Right now, we need to exchange more information with our colleagues at the GRG, as they are the most experienced group in the world when it comes to longevity validation. Ideally, the next step is to prepare and publish scientific peer-reviewed articles with all the information that we have been able to collect.
E. – In your opinion, what is the main lesson of this story?
V. – Well, to be completely honest, the main lesson is still to be learned. You see, the current buzz around longevity records can be easily distracting us from the goals that are truly important. I’d really want this story to be reduced to a revalidation by a qualified group of researchers and to an update of all corresponding books. In my view, it just does not deserve the hype. There was a mistake, we will correct it, and that is it. We will be seeing new longevity records again and again; it will never stop, because there is no proven limit of human healthspan and lifespan.
V. – There are many signs, however, that both healthspan and lifespan can largely depend on the medical technologies that we have. The population is aging very fast, and I believe that we need to focus our efforts on developing and testing the interventions that would effectively bring aging under medical control in humans. This is priority number one for Russian gerontology. If we let things of relatively small practical value, such as the discussion of longevity records and the personal stories behind them, become a talk show and distract us beyond measure, we may come to 2050 completely unprepared. There will be 2 billion people who are 60 years old and older by that time, which is 1/4 of the global population. How are we supposed to cope with the overload of our healthcare system without powerful therapies that can address the underlying mechanisms of aging and thus prevent and cure age-related diseases? We need to undertake preemptive steps. We need honesty, courage, openness and the ability to act fast in creating these innovative treatments. We need the flexibility to find new ways and bypass obstacles. We need cool heads. This is what we truly need, and we need it right now.