Jeanne Calment: A Spirit of Determination
Episode #1 of the course Secrets to a long life: A study of the world’s oldest people by John Robin
Welcome to what I promise will be a fun and insightful course!
Over the next ten lessons, we will study ten of the world’s longest-living men and women, and what we can learn about their secrets to longevity and health.
My name is John Robin. I’m an author and entrepreneur. If you’ve been on Highbrow for a while, then I am likely a familiar name.
This is now my 18th Highbrow course, and I have covered many topics: writing, math, science, productivity, sleep, meditation, journaling, happiness, and exercise. My most recent course is on wealth: 10 Billionaires and their Lessons on Success.
While I love to write educational fiction, my last course on billionaires let me explore my other passion—educational journalism—so I’m back with another one now as I turn from billionaires to supercentenarians.
The Truth of Longevity
Living past 100 is seen as a mark of great blessing in many traditions of the world. When Hindu practitioners bless the feet of elders, they say, “May you live a hundred years.” The expression is echoed in Judaism, except with a wish for a life of 120 years instead of 100.
The UN estimates there are between 300,000-500,000 individuals who surpass age 100. These are called centenarians. Of them, about 300-500 are 110 or older. These are called supercentenarians.
But longevity claims are difficult to verify. Often, claims are made by families motivated by a yearning to break records, only to be found false. In Japan, for example, many supercentenarians have gone “missing” but their families would claim they were still alive until officials found the body mummified at the family home.
The reason verification is difficult, though, lies in two other areas. First off, despite our scientific advances, there is yet to be a radiocarbon method, or other technique, whereby doctors can determine the exact age of a body at death. Second, state-verified birth records did not exist until 1912, when the US state of Mississippi began to register birth records, meaning today in 2020, only individuals aged 108 and younger in countries with reliable health and government systems can have their age verified without dispute.
This means that, although there are partially validated claims of longevity surpassing age 114, including the oldest ever—Ali Ben Mohamed El Amri of Tunisia, born 1880, who allegedly lived to 129 years and 360 days—and the oldest still living as of December 2020—Swami Sivananda of India, born Aug 8, 1896, now allegedly age 124—we can only rely on 53 of these claims which have been exhaustively investigated by the Gerontology Research Group (GRG), the established authority on longevity data.
In these GRG-verified claims, 23 individuals have reached age 116, ten have reached age 117, and only two have reached age 118 or higher. Only women have made it to age 117 and beyond. And of those women who made it to 118, only one of them passed age 120.
In fact, she lived to age 122 and made it halfway to 123, and she will be the focus of our first lesson.
Jeanne Calment: The Oldest-Living Person of All Time
At the time she died on August 4, 1997, Jeanne Calment, of Arles, France, had a sharp memory, spanning a life that took her back long before World War II and World War I, to a childhood meeting in her home town with Vincent Van Gogh, who she recalled distinctly “reeked of alcohol” and was “disappointing.” That happened in 1888 when she was 13 years old.
Jeanne not only set the record for the longest verified human life, but she was also the most well-documented supercentenarian, with 14 census records that go back to her first in 1876 when she was one year old. Despite claims that her daughter, Yvonne, faked her own death and assumed her mother’s identity, these have been thoroughly refuted by the Gerontology Research Group, who went through an exhaustive one-year-long investigation with Jeanne, when she was 120, to corroborate memories and events with residents of her hometown.
Jeanne’s lifestyle reveals the first of ten secrets to long life we will learn in this course. See if you can find the clues in this summary of her habits:
She smoked until age 117. She suffered migraines all her life. She had a weak heart and chronic cough. She loved desserts and consumed more than 2 kg of chocolate per week.
She continued cycling until age 100. She lived on her own from age 88 until just after her 110th birthday. At 111, she suffered heart failure, but was treated with digoxin and lived another 11 years. At age 114 she fell and fractured her femur, at which point she adapted, engaging instead in daily armchair gymnastics in her wheelchair.
She rose at 6:45 am every morning and said a prayer to God at the window, expressing thanks for another day of life. She led a highly ritualized routine, measured down to habits such as having one cigarette after a meal and allotting specific time periods of the day for certain healthy habits. On the last day of her life, the 164th of her 122nd year, she died at 10 am while at the start of this routine. The coroner found no specified cause of death.
You’ll also notice her life was built on a resilient, adaptable routine so deep it was ritualized. It became a heartbeat of determination that drove her forward one day at a time.
And that is our clue to Jeanne’s secret. Even despite her heart failing, she kept up her exercise. When she broke her femur, she changed her workout. She filled her day with habits that kept her active. Even on her last day of life, she was in motion, living in gratitude, to the fullest she could manage.
She didn’t have “perfect health” and “perfect health habits” but rather, the resilience of will and determination that propelled her onward no matter what health hurdles came her way.
We can learn from Jeanne in our everyday lives. The key is to keep yourself active. With Jeanne, you’ll notice that not only did she exercise, but she also kept herself invested in several small habits that filled her day and she always looked forward to resuming the next day. This routine kept her going and going and going.
I have several habits I spend time on every day, to keep my life varied and balanced. By spending time on the things I enjoy the most, above and beyond the work I also do every day, I am forever in motion, which counts for a lot because it’s one small wheel on a larger vehicle that has me every day rising grateful for whatever adventures lie ahead.
Fill your life with healthy habits and you will tap into your inner spirit of determination. You can’t control your health or what life will give you, but you can meet it halfway, and that effort will carry you much further than otherwise. Who knows, it might carry you past 100.
Of course, there are many more skills we will add to our toolkit, as we study the remaining 9 supercentenarians.
Stay tuned for our next one, which will take us to Japan.
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