Longevity mythsLongevity myths have been around for as long as human records. As the Guinness Book of World Records stated in numerous editions from the 1960s to 1980s, "No single subject is more obscured by vanity, deceit, falsehood, and deliberate fraud than the extremes of human longevity."
At the time those words were written Guinness had never acknowledged anyone as having reached the age of 114, but longevity has increased in recent years. The first three people to be acknowledged by Guinness as reaching 114 have all been subjected to doubt by others,and the first two people Guinness accepted as reaching 113 (both male though the 113-plus age bracket has since been shown on the order of 90% female) are both no longer regarded as having done so.
Even today with Jeanne Calment the recordholder at an indisputable age of 122, the facts remain clear:
Fewer than fifty people in human history have been documented as reaching the age of 114.
Fewer than twenty of those people who reached 114 have reached the age of 115.
Yet in the face of the ages that can be validated by investigation,we are still confronted with claims that the observed extremes have been far exceeded - longevity myths.
Leaving aside claims in mythology of lives into the thousands of years, and biblical claims like Methuselah, there have been reports for centuries that persist today of people decades, even generations, older than have ever been shown authentic.
A National Geographic article in 1973 treated with respect some claims subsequently disproven and retracted, including the notorious Vilcabamba valley in Ecuador, where locals pointed to ancestors' baptismal records as their own. Also in that article were reports of very aged people in Hunza, a mountain region of Pakistan, without documentary evidence being cited.
It is typical that extreme longevity claims come from remote areas where recordkeeping is poor, but generally observed life expectancy is rather lower than in the areas where genuine claims are typically found. The Caribbean island nation of Dominica was lately promoting the allegedly 128-year-old Elizabeth Israel(1875??-2003) but has a smaller population and lower life expectancy than Iceland, where the documentation is very good and the longevity record is 108.
The Caucasus mountain region of Abkhazia was the subject of extreme claims for decades, inspired by the desire of Stalin to believe that he would live a very long time, the most extreme claim there being that of Shirali Mislimov (1805??-1973). An earlier claim of similar lifespan from South America was for Javier Pereira (said to have been determined to be 167 years old by a dentist looking at his teeth!).
In prior centuries there have been other claims, one of the best-known being Thomas Parr, introduced to London in 1635 with the claim that he was 152 years old, who promptly died and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Greater English claims include those of the allegedly-169-year-old Henry Jenkins (apparently concocted to support testimony in a court case about events a century before) and the supposedly 207-year-old Thomas Carn (died in 1588 by most reports).
Longevity myths did not come in for serious scrutiny until the work of W.J. Thoms in 1873, and the odd wire correspondent looking for a captivating filler reports extreme undocumented claims to this day: in early 2000 a Nepalese man claimed to have been born in 1832, citing as evidence a card issued in 1988.
Responsible validation of longevity claims involves investigation of records following the claimant from birth to the present,and claims far outside the demonstrated records regularly fail such scrutiny. The United States Social Security Administration has public death records of over 100 people said to have died in their 160s to 190s, but often a quick look at the file immediately finds an obvious error.
The work of sorting genuine supercentenarians is a continuous process, and a news story must never be taken for authoritative fact if no validation is cited.