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Can someone live to be a supercentenarian?

A woman in central Asia claims to have just celebrated her 130th birthday, a new record for keeping the grim reaper at bay



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.

So you don't think diet plays a role? Dosova reportedly enjoys eating cheese, yogurt and ground wheat—and avoids sweets.
No. One of the common questions of centenarians and supercentenarians is, "What's your secret?" You hear things like they drank a glass of schnapps every day or that they were happy or they smoked. Jeanne Calment smoked for more than 100 years. Whatever the answer the centenarian gives is probably entirely irrelevant. It's kind of like asking Michael Jordan what's your secret to growing six feet, seven inches. It's his genetics that influenced his particular traits. And anyone living past 100 years basically has to win the genetic lottery.

The only thing diet-wise that might be relevant is if they said they ate less. If they ate smaller meals and remained slim throughout their whole life—that could have influenced their longevity. There is a lot of evidence that caloric restriction extends life. The exceptional longevity we see in Japan today may be attributable to that.

What about family history?
That's the most important thing to look at, to see how long their relatives lived. The researcher who studied Jeanne Calment's ancestry went back 10 generations in her family and discovered that their average life expectancy was in the mid-70s when in that part of France it was the mid-30s for everyone else. It's a classic example of genetics.

What about the claims that Dosova rarely if ever went to a doctor?
You hear that sort of thing with people who live a very long time—that they never went to a doctor and didn't take medications. Of course, that can mean they didn't need a doctor or medicine, which is why they're living so long in the first place, or perhaps they just didn't have access to one. But that's just a correlation at best. It's not because they didn't see a doctor that they live longer.

Can you scientifically prove someone's age?

No, you can't. Researchers have been looking for biomarkers of age for a long time and have failed. People sell tests out there to measure your biological age and none of them work. There's no evidence that you can measure biological age with any reliability.

What are some clues you can look for to get a ballpark sense of someone's true age?

Probably the most telltale sign I would look for is skin elasticity. With centenarians, their skin is translucent. But just because someone looks old doesn't mean he or she is. The skin of some people who spend a lot of time outdoors seems to age very rapidly. Someone can look 80 or 90 and only be 40 to 50.

Would telomeres—bits of DNA that cap and protect chromosomes from damage and dwindle each time cells divide—provide any clues?
Probably not. A lot would depend on which cells you were testing. Cells don't all replicate at the same rate or divide in the same way. Plus, in some parts of the body the telomeres get shorter and in others they get longer. It's not established that any one cell type is better than another at making an age prediction. That [also] goes for the only nonreplicating cells in our bodies, our muscle cells and neurons [nerve cells]. They are the equivalent of our [cellular] Achilles' heel, because right now we can't really do anything about them as we age. For example, colleagues of mine who study heart muscle have shown that you begin losing heart muscle relatively early in life. Sometimes congestive heart failure is just losing enough muscle that the heat's electrical system no longer functions. You may have done nothing wrong, may not have had high cholesterol, for example, it's just that your heart simply doesn't work anymore.

What about with an autopsy? Is there any way to determine someone's age postmortem?
You can open up a centenarian's brain and you'll see some areas that look like that of a 50-year-old or of a 110-year-old. You can have variation in the basic process of aging, called senescence, in different parts of the same body. You can look at someone's teeth after they die to evaluate their age, but I'm not sure if Dosova has any.

What are some other signs that help indicate someone's age?
Older people usually have dementia, which is cognitive decline due to aging, of one form or another. When they tested Jeanne they thought she had dementia, because she was very quiet, but it turned out she just spoke an obscure dialect of French. She was remarkably intelligent and alert and could remember things way back in her life. She remembered meeting Vincent van Gogh in southern France, for example, and remembered songs from early childhood. Later in life, she was largely blind, deaf and bedridden—the things that went wrong with her just happen to most of us at a younger age. But she did ride a bicycle until she was 100.

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