THE OLDEST OF THEM ALL?: A recent photo of Sakhan Dosova, a Kazakh woman who may be a record-setting 130 years old. Image: Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036
And you thought you felt old: Last week, in the village of Prishakhtinsk in central Kazakhstan, Sakhan Dosova celebrated what she, her family and Kazakh officials all agree was her 130th birthday. If true, her advanced age would shatter the old-timer record set by Jeanne Calment, who died in Arles, France, in 1997 at the age of 122.
Dosova has a passport and an identification card verifying she was born March 27, 1879; she doesn't have a birth certificate but apparently that is because such records were not routinely kept where she grew up in the late 19th century. Soviet census records, however, list her as being 46 years old in 1926, further supporting Dosova's über-Methuselah status. (To add perspective, if Dosova's story is true, she was pushing 40 during the 1917 Russian Revolution and when World War I ended in 1918, and she was born the same year as Albert Einstein and Joseph Stalin.)
Though Dosova, a nun who was once married but has been widowed for an unspecified amount of time (her husband was killed over a bundle of wood, according to the Associated Press), reportedly had 10 children, only one, a daughter aged 76, is still living. This has raised questions about Dosova naturally conceiving and birthing a child at 54, although women at least as old as 59 have become mothers (and as old as 70 with the help of in vitro fertilization). Dosova lives in a crowded apartment with a granddaughter, one of 35 grandchildren, and is a bit hard of hearing but otherwise in good health, according to various news reports.
To find out if the claims surrounding Dosova are credible, ScientificAmerican.com spoke with Jay Olshansky, a professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a co-author of The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging and a co-author of a 2002 Scientific American magazine piece "No Truth to the Fountain of Youth."
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What is your initial impression having seen pictures and video of Sakhan Dosova?
She does look very old, there's no question about that, but there's a big difference between being 130 years old and 110 or even 120 years old. One hundred and thirty years is quite a shock to the statistical system. It is hard to believe, but I think its possible.
Is it possible that Dosova gave birth to a daughter when she was 54 years old?
Believe it or not, that's exactly what you would think for someone who has had a very long life. In centenarians and supercentenarians—people over 110—you see a higher level of fecundity much later in life. These women will still be having periods and producing eggs later than the average female. As long as the body believes it is reproductively active and keeps producing certain sex hormones, these seem to help protect the body against aging. As soon as menopause occurs, things begin to change in a woman's body very rapidly. If you look at records of centenarians, many of them in fact had children in their late 40s. So if Dosova did have a child at the age of 54, it would likely corroborate her story rather than detract from it.
Could the region she lives in have something to do with her longevity?
We've heard claims of extremely long life in nearby Georgia, too. A problem is that people often lie about their age in places or situations in which there's a financial motivation or some other benefit in exaggerating their age. The classic example was back in the 1960s and 1970s when Alex Comfort [a medical professional, famous for writing The Joy of Sex] studied people living in Georgia, then [a republic] in the Soviet Union. He went and asked people how old they were, then he'd come back three years later and the people said they were seven years older. That part of the Soviet Union was trying to heavily promote its lifestyle and diet, particularly eating yogurt, as being healthy.