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We Spoke with the Scientist Studying How to Live As Long As Possible

Allie Conti

Allie Conti

Robert Young has been fascinated with staving off death since he was a toddler.

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

The Gerontology Research Group was founded by a guy named Dr. Stephen Coles who was obsessed with slowing or reversing aging. He didn't succeed; cancer killed him at the relatively young age of 73. However, his brain was frozen with the hope that he could continue his studies once the technology existed to upload his memory to a computer. The website dedicated to his life's work seems similarly frozen in time––an Angelfire-esque relic of web 1.0. Meanwhile, as Coles's acolytes wait for his resurrection, they're busy verifying the claims of people who say they're supercentenarians, that is, over the age of 110. Although the group doesn't seem to be hosting events any longer, they still have ambassadors all over the world digging through records as well as a network of scientists scientists trying to stave off the inevitable human end for as long as possible.

About two weeks ago, I woke up with a numbness in my hand. I interpreted this sensation to mean that I'm dying, because I'm an adult child. And naturally, as a coping mechanism, I became very interested in the GRG's research. After all, it's very calming to read about a lady who smoked cigarettes for a literal century and maintained a pulse until she was 122.

Eventually I decided to confront my mortal terror even more directly by calling the director of the GRG's research and database division. Robert Young (real name) was a kid who corrected people's grammar at the age of two and then grew into the kind of adult who brings up his former precociousness in conversation. But he also has an obsessive mind when it comes to statistics and knows more about death than anyone alive. My hypochondria wasn't cured through our chat, but the gerontologist did teach me about the maximum human lifespan and what getting older means on a cellular level, as well as the story of the woman they call the "Michael Jordan of aging."

VICE: Have you always been interested in studying super old people, even as a kid?
Robert Young: The fact of the matter is that I became interested in this when I was a small child––about three-and-a-half. My great-great uncle was a World War I veteran and he passed away, and basically what happened was I asked my mother why he died, and she said, "Well, because he was old." So I thought in my mind that if old people died first, I wanna be friends with the old people so I can remember them while they're still here. And his wife, my great-great aunt, was 85 at the time, and she ended up living to 96 years, 361 days old. And that really kind of made me upset, because she died just four days short of 97. So I went from being interested in the maximum life span to more specifically keeping track of ages.

I got my first Guinness Book of World Records at the age of 10. Most of the oldest people were female, except for the title holder, who was a male, and he was 118. And no one else was older than 113. Something didn't look right. That got me interested in age validation, and later it turned out he was actually 15 years younger.

What's the goal of the GRG? Do you want to live forever?
So basically at the moment it has two main departments. One is run by the successor of Dr. Coles, who founded the GRG in 1990 and passed away in 2014 at the age of––unfortunately––only 73. The goal was for other scientists to get together and discuss the aging process and discuss potential treatments for the aging process. The idea at the time was that Western medicine was too focused on treating the symptoms of aging and not focused on treating the causes of aging. The idea was that if you put a bunch of bright minds together, you would get good results.

What's the history of age validation?
It started in the 1800s with life insurance policies. Actuaries were trying to figure out how long people lived to calculate rate for those policies. Except for the small niche field of actuarial research, very little research was done into supercentenarians.

There was no database when the GRG decided to start keeping track in 1998. About 1 in 5 million people in the US are 110 and older, and before the internet came along there was no way to assemble someone that rare into data groups. But when the internet came along, we could get information from all over the world, and it became viable to study them as a population group. Things have changed so fast since the GRG went online in 1995, almost 21 years ago. Smart phones came around 2007, 2008. Go back to 2004 and Ancestry.com only had 20 percent of the US census data online. Go back to 2000 and if you wanted to find a document on an extremely old person, you had to use the old hand-crank newsreel. Wow. It could take hours upon hours to look on every line of every page.

I feel like there's a story every month about the world's oldest person dying. Are you ever like "Oh shit, how'd we miss her?" Or do you ever see people being reported on that you know are liars?
So here's the thing. There's a misconception that the world's oldest person dies all the time. Not true. Since Guinness started keeping track in 1955, the average length of reign has been about 1.06 years. Part of the problem though is that we do have unverified claims of people saying they're older than the oldest person and that gets reported by the media. If you go online you can look up Typologies of Extreme Longevity Myths, a study of Social Security Administration data showed that over 98 percent claims turned out to be false. And the US data is among the best in the world. So you can imagine if you're trying to look at places like Nigeria and Pakistan where 110 years ago, those records did not exist.

You also get what's called the longevity myth, which is where people's imaginations exceed reality. So if you don't have a record of when you're born and you're going to guesstimate your age, and after the age of 80, people begin to inflate their age. Before 80, people understate their age. I think this is because of youth, vanity. But when people reach the point that age is something you don't wanna hide and be proud of––usually this involves the great grandmothers or the oldest person in the village––then it becomes a source of pride. The other thing is there's a fear of death. To hear a story about how there's a 130-year-old living out in the woods in the middle of nowhere sounds great.

Give it to me straight. What is the longest I could possibly live?
Scientifically speaking, the odds of anyone ever living to 127 at the moment are one in a trillion, which means it's not happening. Living to anywhere between 115 and 120, you have what I call "probable impossible," I'd say there's about a 1 percent chance [that someone claiming to be 115-120 was telling the truth] but there's still a possibility. Between 120 and 127, the odds of surviving really begin to disappear totally. When we look at the statistics, we have currently 2,500 cases of people 110 plus. Of those, by the age of 118, only two. When you're going from 2,500 to two in just eight years, to me that's scary. That's just that there's a maximum life span. The death result is much higher than random chance––if you got hit by a bus, got shot, got sick. There must be a biological component. And studies show that there's a maximum life span for every mammal that's different. The oldest cat was 38. The oldest dog was about 30. The oldest mouse was four. The oldest elephant was 78. The oldest human was 122. Whales seem to live longer than humans. The oldest one on record was 211. Tortoises live to about 200.

Don't lobsters live forever or something?
Here's the thing. Some species such as lobsters and clams manage to get around aging by continuing to grow. Clams add a ring each year, lobsters continue to grow larger. Humans stop growing between 20 and 25. Most species stop growing and start aging. Then it becomes an issue of what your biological time clock is set to.

Humans seem to have a warranty period of about 100 years. The average cell divides every two years. Cells divide about 50 times. To get to 115, you'd have to age about 15 percent slower than normal. Basically, Jeanne Calment, who lived to be 122, was called the Michael Jordan of aging. The point was that all the practice in the world isn't going to make you play basketball like Michael Jordan. OK? On the other hand, if Michael Jordan never practiced, he wouldn't be as good as he was. So you have to fulfill your potential by trying to do the best you can do, but at the same time, you can't make yourself a longevity star.

Earlier you mentioned that we should focus on treating aging itself rather than symptoms. I don't think I even know what aging is.
That is an issue. Scientists don't agree on what aging is. You have the entropic metabolic processes resulting in accumulated damage due to inefficient operation over time. So there's intrinsic aging, which means biological aging, and external aging, which is effects. For example, you're more likely to age faster if you're in the sunlight all the time. That's a secondary effect. You're more likely to age faster if you smoke cigarettes.

Right now 48 of the 50 oldest people to have ever lived were women. Why?
Some ideas in the past came around that were discredited. For example, they said that it was about menopause and hormones. What we've found from the data at the GRG is that women outlive men at every age, including in the womb. Males are conceived at a ratio of about 125 to 100 over females by birth. This is biological compensation. Male fetuses have a higher mortality rate. Males outnumber females by about 105 to 100. The greater mortality rate means by about age 13, women are equal to men. This seems to be a biological effect. There's a concept called the Double X hypothesis. The Y chromosome is much smaller, and the vast majority of your DNA profile is around X. Normally, if a man has a mistake on the first X, like the genetic defect for colorblindness, he's basically toast. He's going to be colorblind. But on a woman, they are much less likely to be colorblind because they would have to have the mistake on both X's, so they get two chances to get it right as opposed to just one.

What countries have the oldest people? Is there a diet or lifestyle or place that has a particularly high concentration of supercentenarians?
The maximum human life span is the same everywhere. When Susannah Mushatt Jones passed away on May 12, she was 116. And the oldest person in Europe was 116. The oldest person in Japan was 115. Very close together. Although the US doesn't have anybody who's 116 at the moment. The oldest person in North America lives in Jamaica and is 116. What we see is variation by region is very small.

There is some variation based on environment and lifestyle issues. You can add two or three years or minus. Supercentenarians tends to do better in warmer climates. It's interesting––Sweden hasn't had anyone yet over the age of 113. Places like the Caribbean, South Japan, South Europe, the Mediterranean tend to do well. But you have to understand, we're relying on the record systems of these places from 110 years ago and approximately 98 percent of the records available are going to be from regions like North America, Europe, South America, Australia, Japan. There are vast regions of the world that had no records or almost no records––for example, Saudi Arabia. Some of the rulers of Saudi Arabia in the past didn't have birth records. China had birth registration by the 1950s, so by the 2060s, we're going to see some good data from China.

I don't think I could find my birth certificate if I had to. If I live to be old, how would you verify my age?
A lot of the records are online. The key today is making sure the person alive is the person in the birth record. So basically, we need three keys for validation. One at or near the birth event. We need unique identifiers that allow you to identify the person in the birth record with the person alive today. We want recent identification showing the person and what they look like. And we want a mid-life record, such as a marriage certificate or a war record or something like that to help flesh out the story. If the person stayed in the same town for most of their life, if they stayed connected with their family, if they show up in census matches, it can be fairly easy to validate that the person alive today is in the person in the birth record. If the person disappeared off the grid, it becomes a problem.

Do you get the sense that it's even worth living that long? Is there any quality of life at 115?
I've probably met over 50 who are 110 plus. It can vary. One of the things that's clear to me is that you can't put them all in one category. We had one woman who was 116 who lived in her own home, she could walk with a walker, she ate Wendy's, she watched TV, she could do an interview. That's the ultimate extreme case of living well and hanging out with the great, great grandkids. On the other hand, we had a woman who was confined to bed for 21 hours a day, awake for only three, unable to get up. That's a sad situation where maybe it's not worth it. Most people are somewhere in the middle. One more thing I wanna say is that the people who live the oldest are in the best shape. So almost everybody that lives to be 115 was living on their own at 100. So we need to get rid of this idea of, "I'm going to be 30 years in a nursing home." It's not like that.

What kills people who are that old?
Pneumonia is a big killer for 115 plus. Scientists don't wanna say this, but in many cases, it's just the aging process itself. There are times when they are simply in their room and fall asleep and never wake up.

I read on your website that Dr. Coles was frozen. What's the deal with that?
His brain was frozen. Well the idea is that in the future, we may be able to upload people's memories on a computer. The technology doesn't currently exist for that. So if you freeze the person's brain, you might be able to encode the memories maybe 100 years from now.

Is that something you're interested in?
I'm not sure yet. One thing you have to understand is that it's probably $100,000 [to preserve a brain]. I think in Dr. Cole's case the Alcor Life Extension Foundation agreed to preserve his brain. Dr. Coles was involved in so many different fields––robotics, artificial intelligence. So looking at it from that perspective, if you're going to preserve a great mind, why not have it be someone like Dr. Coles?

So the absolute maximum human age is 122, right? And in my lifetime, will I see that increase?
The observed ceiling is 122. Scientists have calculated that if you have 100 hypothetical universes, and the total number of persons whose births, deaths, and other records were recorded in vital statistics 110 plus years ago was over 800 million, the odds of one person reaching 122 was about 13 percent. Which means there was only a one in seven chance that Jeanne Calment would happen. Which is not that extreme. But the bottom line is that it was more likely not to happen. But I would say 125 is the realistic estimate for the limit, and 127 is possible if everything went right. It could happen in the future.

No mammal species has broken through the maximum life span barriers with the help of scientists. Only fruit flies. It's going to take a lot more research to get to that. But beyond scientific breakthroughs, a person living today has a better life trajectory than the person who lived 110 year ago. Susannah Mushatt Jones, who was 116, was born into a segregated world in Alabama. Her family used the barter system. They were extremely poor. They didn't have decent health care. So I think that we're still going to see gains because people in the past who didn't have these benefits managed to live to 116. With these benefits, I think you could add another five, or even seven years.

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