An expert on longevity gives three reasons why the world’s oldest person lived so long

It’s rare for people to live past 100, but two women from France have joined the ranks of the world’s oldest people [1].

Jeanne Calment is considered to be the world’s oldest person, living 122 years. Sister André, a French nun, was the world’s oldest person until she passed away on January 17 at the age of 118 [2]

Her life was discussed with Jean-Marie Robine, an expert demographer who focuses on the links between health and longevity, before she passed away. According to Robine, a large part of Jeanne Calment’s longevity is due to a combination of chance and some aspects of her life likely contributed to her long life.

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World’s oldest person lived to 122 for three likely explanations

Calment was wealthy: Robine notes that Calment grew up in an upper class family in the south of France, so she lived in a nice neighborhood [3]. In that time period, it was not common for women to go to school until the age of 16, he explains. Furthermore, she took private classes in art, cuisine and dance until she got married at 20. 

“She never worked,” says Robine, another factor that likely contributed to her life expectancy. As a result, she never had to cook for herself or shop for her necessities. She always had someone at home to assist her.

It wasn’t until later in life that Calment smoked cigarettes: Until marriage, Calment was not able to smoke, says Robine. It’s important to remember where we were, in a quaint town in the south of France, at the end of the nineteenth century. “It was of course absolutely forbidden, and impossible, for girls, and specifically for those in bourgeois families, to do that.”

However, Calment’s husband offered her a cigarette soon after they were married. In spite of the idea that she was thrilled to be able to do something she wasn’t allowed to before, she quit smoking after “smoking for the first time.” Interestingly enough, Calment didn’t smoke for most of her life, but developed the habit at around age 112 while staying in a nursing home.

Calment enjoyed an active social life: With so much free time, Calment had “absolutely nothing to do except to take care of herself, to visit France and have social activities,” says Robine. She mostly attended social events and met new people, especially since “people were organizing balls at home.”

In addition to traveling often, she was able to visit Paris and see the under-construction Eiffel Tower with her husband. “She discovered this fascinating world at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Whether she passed at 119 or 120 would have been exceptional, Robine says. “But she [lived] to 122 and a few more days.”

Robine is also a research director at INSERM (Institut National De La Sante et de La Recherche Medicale) in France. One of his most recent works on Calment “The Real Facts Supporting Jeanne Calment as the Oldest Ever Human” was published in The Journals of Gerontology in September 2019 [4].

[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2023/01/28/what-the-french-do-differently-to-stay-healthy.html
[2] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/centenarian-nun-thought-worlds-oldest-person-dies-118-rcna66227
[3] https://www.cnbc.com/2023/02/21/longevity-expert-3-reasons-the-worlds-oldest-person-lived-to-122.html
[4] https://academic.oup.com/biomedgerontology/article/74/Supplement_1/S13/5569844

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