December 10, 2020 | Press Release
New Monograph on Supercentenarians: Research on the Frontier of Survival
The researchers Bernard Jeune and Michel Poulain in conversation with Emma Morano, checking her CV data and validating her age. She became 117 years and 137 days old. © CC BY 4.0
More than 20 years of research about the oldest-old is compiled in the recently published open access monograph “Exceptional Lifespans”. In this interview the three editors, James Vaupel, Bernard Jeune and Heiner Maier, discuss longevity records, the limits of aging, and the hurdles of data collection for people over 110 years old.
Is there a certain age we cannot surpass?
James Vaupel: None that now can be foreseen. It seems likely that the maximum human lifespan will gradually increase. It is possible that there is a limit at some unknown age. It is also possible that breakthroughs will be achieved that greatly increase the maximum span of life.
Bernard Jeune: I agree with Jim. You can always live one day longer.
Jeanne Louise Calment holds the current record of longevity from 1997. She reached an age of 122.45 years. Do you think her record might be broken soon?
James Vaupel: We estimate that the probability of someone exceeding Calment’s life span before 2045 is less than 50 percent. But while Calment's record is exceptional, it is possible that it could be beaten.
Bernard Jeune: We also find evidence in the past. It took more than 50 years to surpass the 113 years that Delina Filkins reached in 1928 when Augusta Holtz reached the age of 114 in 1985. It is possible Fannie Thomas surpassed Delina Filkin’s age by 68 days when she died in 1981, but unfortunately she has never been thoroughly age validated as Delina Filkins and Augusta Holtz were.
In the new monograph the three of you co-edited, you present statistical evidence about mortality rates of people older than 110 years. Why are they special?
Heiner Maier: They are special because they are constant. The mortality rates of supercentenarians do not increase with every year they get older as they those of younger people do. Jutta Gampe, my colleague at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, suggests that human mortality after age 110 is flat at a probability of death of 50 percent per year. That means, every year half of all people who are older than 110 die. The other half lives on with a 50/50 chance of surviving the next year. And so on.
For more than 20 years, you and an international network of demographers have been researching the oldest-old and the limits of longevity. How does the new book summarize the state of research?
James Vaupel: The monograph presents the most advanced, most complete, state-of-the-art summary about very old people and their mortality.
Heiner Maier: Our new monograph documents the advance of the frontier of human survival based on carefully validated data of more than 1,200 supercentenarians – people who lived to 110 years old and older. In addition, the book includes detailed accounts of extreme long-livers and how their lifespans were documented, as well as reports on the causes of death at the oldest ages.
Reliable data are essential for demographic research on longevity. What are the hurdles to collecting data on people who are 100 years old and older?
James Vaupel: In most countries, today and even more so in the past, alleged centenarians are actually younger than 100 because of age exaggeration and age mis-reporting. In order to check the reliability of an alleged centenarian, a birth certificate or other early life document is needed and then it must be confirmed that it does indeed pertain to an alleged longliver. This requires meticulous research.
Much of these data is collected in a database, the International Database on Longevity (IDL). What makes the database unique?
Heiner Maier: The IDL provides high-quality age-validated data on an individual level for more than 18,000 semi-supercentenarians between 105 and 109, and more than 1,200 supercentenarians over 110 years old. It is the only database that provides such data without age-ascertainment bias. The database enables demographic analysis of mortality in the highest age groups.
Bernard Jeune: For several cases, it is based on a much higher level of validation than Wikipedia’s “List of verified oldest people” which is only based on a few criteria like birth registration or baptism record, at least one midlife document, and a death registration.
The book not only compiles studies on longevity in different countries, but also the life stories of individuals who have become very old. How do these individual case reports contribute to research?
Bernard Jeune: There are unique historical persons who were born in one century, lived most of their life in the next century, and ended their life in the following. They do not only interest demographers but also historians. The life stories of these exceptional long livers can be compared to life stories of famous historical persons.
Are you planning another monograph on this topic?
James Vaupel: We are planning another conference. Depending on the result, a follow-up conference might be organized. This process might lead to another monograph. Interest in longevity and in the pioneers on the frontier of survival is increasing, so regardless of whether another monograph is published, research will thrive.
About the editors
James Vaupel is AXA Professor of Longevity Research and works at the Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics at the University of Southern Denmark. The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research was founded under his leadership in 1996 and he served as Director until the end of 2017. He was Director of the Max-Planck Odense Center on the Biodemography of Aging from 2013 through 2017. He also serves as Research Professor at Duke University’s Population Research Institute. For his research on longevity he won the IPSEN Foundation award as well as the Seneca Medal and was granted an honorary doctorate by the University of Newcastle and Lund University. More
Bernard Jeune is a senior researcher emeritus in epidemiology at the Institute of Public Health at the University of Southern Denmark. He graduated in medicine from Aarhus University in 1971 and has been resident at different hospitals in Denmark since the 1970s. He has been the head of the Institute of Public Health, the head of the Ageing Research Centre, and head of the Graduate Program in Public Health at SDU. His research work has concerned the epidemiology of chronic diseases and disability, with emphasis on the oldest-old. He was one of the principal investigators of the Five Country Oldest Old Project (5-COOP). More
Heiner Maier is research scientist with the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR). He studied psychology at Free University of Berlin and human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University, where he received his doctoral degree in 1995. He joined the MPIDR in 1998. His interest in supercentenarian research was triggered by a workshop held at the MPIDR in 2000. Subsequently he joined Vaupel’s international group of supercentenarian researchers, organized the supercentenarian data collection in Germany, helped develop the International Database on Longevity (IDL), and coordinated the publication of the group’s 2010 monograph. More
Original publication (open access)
Maier, H., Jeune, B., Vaupel, J. W.: Exceptional Lifespans (2021). ISBN 978-3-030-49970-9. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-49970-9