Emma Morano, the oldest person in the world, died peacefully at home in her armchair on April 15. She was 117 years, 137 days, 16 hours, and some minutes old. Morano is believed to have been the last person living who had been born in the 1800s. Her birthday was Nov. 29, 1899.
A native of the Piedmont region of Italy, Morano moved as a teenager for health reasons to Verbania, a small town on Lake Maggiore, and never left. Her doctor thought a change of air would do her good.
News reports of Morano’s longevity made the town and its lake famous, and visitors from around the world regularly traveled to Verbania to see the supercentarian. Morano politely greeted all who came, but she stopped venturing outside of her two-room, church-owned apartment 15 years ago.
She was very devout, preferring in her very old age the healing of the rosaries to modern medicine.
A supercentarian is a person who is 110 years old or older. Only one in 1,000 centarians lives until 110. Current estimates put the total number of centarians worldwide at about 450,000. The United States has the most among nations, with an estimated 72,000. Between 80 and 85 percent are women.
Morano ranks fifth among verified longest-lived persons in history. Frenchwoman Jeanne Louise Calment reportedly lived the longest scientifically confirmed human life span: 122 years and 164 days. She was born Feb. 21, 1875, and died Aug. 4, 1997.
I read many of the news accounts of Emma Morano’s death and pass along below some details about her life. Not surprisingly, because of Morano’s private nature, the accounts are not consistent in their facts. I recommend that you read The New York Times’ article, “Remembering the World’s Oldest Person, in the Objects She Left Behind”: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/21/world/europe/emma-morano-world-oldest-woman.html?_r=0
HOW DID SHE DO IT?
The oldest of nine children, Morano credited genetics, the lack of a husband, and a longtime diet of raw eggs for her longevity.
One of her sisters reportedly lived to 102; another to 99. Her mother died at 91.
Morano married an abusive man when she was 26—after he allegedly threatened to kill her—and left him 11 years later. Her only child, a son, died in 1937 when he was just seven months old. She never divorced and never wanted to remarry. Her husband died in 1978.
“I didn’t want to be dominated by anyone,” she told The New York Times.
But she also admitted to being in love with a boy who was killed in World War I and thereafter having no interest in marrying anyone else.
Morano reportedly ate three eggs, two of them raw, every day for more than 90 years, a regimen that she cut back recently to two raw eggs. Shortly after World War I, a doctor diagnosed her with anemia and recommended the egg consumption. She also ate biscuits every day and liked chicken and cookies and only rarely ate fruits or vegetables. Her diet was definitely not a Mediterranean one.
In comparison, Calment, the longest-lived person, smoked two cigarettes a day for nearly 100 years (ages 21 to 117); regularly consumed port wine and chocolate, and shunned exercise. She also had long-lived relatives: Her father died just shy of his 100th birthday, and her mother lived to 86. An older brother survived to 97.
Morano worked until she was 75, but I could not discern the nature of her employment. Her life was an uncomplicated one. She reportedly went to sleep before 7 p.m. and arose before 6 a.m.
WHAT IS AGING?
In “Our Parents in Crisis: Confronting Medical Errors, Ageist Doctors, and Other Healthcare Failings,” I examine aging and longevity, and offer below an edited excerpt, without endnotes, from my book:
In my medical research, I have seen aging defined as “[T]he sum of all changes, physiological, genetic, molecular, that occur with the passage of time, from fertilization to death.” If you accept this definition, then aging begins as soon as a sperm and egg unite into one cell. Most gerontologists believe, however, that biological aging starts after our sexual maturation, around the age of 22.
Geriatrician Dr. Diane Snustad, of the University of Virginia, spoke for the majority view when she said that aging represents all of “the losses in normal function that occur after sexual maturation”—right up to the time of our maximum life span.
“Nature,” explained Snustad, “wants reproduction.” After we’ve ensured species survival by reproducing, she said, we “live on our bodily reserves until we run out.” Bodily reserves are physiological reserves.
The “hallmark” of aging, according to Leonard Hayflick, Ph.D., an influential U.S. microbiologist and gerontologist, “is an inexorable loss in physiological capacity.”
In 1962, Hayflick (b. 1928) made a breakthrough laboratory discovery: He observed in studies of human-cell cultures that normal cells have a limited capacity to divide. They do not proliferate continuously, living forever, as scientific belief had long held. (Cell cultures are colonies of cells removed from the body and maintained in a special nutrient medium in the lab.)
In contrast, scientists can keep cultured malignant (tumor) cells proliferating indefinitely: Their lines are immortal. (You may be familiar with HeLa, the code name for the first-ever cancer-cell line kept growing in a culture. Johns Hopkins scientists successfully harvested these cells from a dying patient’s cervix in 1951; the line still exists today. See the book and movie, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”)
Normal cells eventually die, and, therefore, Hayflick reasoned, must undergo intracellular changes caused by . . . ? You guessed it . . . aging. The non-dividing, but still viable state of cultured normal cells is senescence or old age. His observation of their gradually diminished capacity came to be known as Hayflick’s limit.
After what Hayflick calls our “reproductive success”—when we are presumed to have contributed to our species’ survival by procreating—we rely on our physiological reserves to enable us to continue living. Because those reserves differ from person to person, we differ in our aging.
In the wild, natural selection favors those animals that not only have the greater survival skills (the “fittest”), but also the physiological reserve in their vital organs to survive damage from predators, disease, accidents, and environmental hazards.
Humans no longer live in the wild and do not need excess physiological reserves to ensure reproductive success. Nonetheless, we have the potential for continued function well past both fulfillment of our goal of reproduction and nurturance of our offspring into adulthood. Why? [Good question.]
. . . [To understand aging, you have to] think about physiology and heterogeneity. Thanks to increased longevity, we can focus our attention squarely on both.
Longevity may be defined in several ways, including:
§ The average age at death of all members of a population
§ The age to which the last 1 or 5 percent of a generation lives
§ The maximum age to which any member of a population lives
The average age at death yields what is known as the life expectancy at birth. This is the total number of years that a human female or male, on average, can expect to live. Life expectancy is not always synonymous with longevity.
In 1900, the life expectancy from birth in the United States was 49.0 years for women and 46.4 for men. A high infant mortality rate accounted for these low averages. Infectious diseases for which there were no cures (typhoid, cholera, influenza) claimed many children.
In 2010, by comparison, the U.S. life expectancy from birth was 79.7 years for women and 72.6 for men. Epidemiologists project U.S. life expectancies from birth in 2050 of 82.9 years for women and 76.5 for men.
[At the time of my book’s publication,] the United States ranked only 28th among developed nations worldwide in life expectancy, even though it spent more in healthcare as a percentage of gross domestic product than any other nation. The top five long-living nations, in descending order, were: No. 1 Japan, then France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. . . .
Life expectancy from birth first increased in the 20th century because of improvements in public health, specifically in sanitation and hygiene, which led to safer food and water supplies. Daily life on a subsistence level became cleaner and healthier. The advent of antibiotics and vaccinations in the 1940s-1950s further enhanced life expectancy, but not as profoundly as advances in public hygiene did.
Longevity received another boost in the 1960s-1980s, with the development of successful treatments for cardiovascular disease, in particular, drugs to control hypertension. . . .
Interestingly, despite extensions in the human life expectancy at birth, the maximum life span potential—the longest any human being can live—has not changed.
According to Hayflick, the maximum human life has been about 125 years for the past 100,000 years. The U.S. maximum life span today falls short of that by about 10 years. Long-lived Americans tend to expire around age 114.
[The] scientific consensus is that life arose spontaneously about 3.5-4.0 billion years ago from amino acids, nucleotides, and other basic chemicals of living organisms. Primates appeared 56 million years ago, and humans, such as they were, debuted 5 million years ago.
For more than 99.9 percent of human time on Earth, writes Hayflick, the average life expectancy at birth was about age 20 or 30. Remains of prehistoric humans rarely reveal ages greater than 50.
THEORIES OF AGING
[I explore in detail theories of aging, most of which can be categorized into one of two modus operandi: programming and error.]
Programming theorists believe that there is something in our genetic “machinery” that leads us gradually to slow down and our bodily systems to wear out. We have an inborn aging process. A hard-wiring.
Over our lifetimes, [researchers] explain in elaborating upon this theory, our genes “sequentially [switch] on and off signals to the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems responsible for maintenance of homeostasis and for activation of defense responses.”
Error theorists, in contrast, discount the existence of a pre-set biological clock. They believe that environmental insults at various levels, such as at the level of mitochondrial DNA, cause progressive damage that results in aging.
Is it hard-wiring, accumulated damage, or a combination of both? [See my book!]
Hayflick regards aging as a random process, albeit inborn. After reproduction, he contends, a “random downward spiral of molecular disorder” occurs that results in the cellular, tissue, and organ changes that we call aging. Ultimately, our body’s loss of molecular fidelity exceeds its repair capacity and increases our susceptibility to pathology, such as cancers. Old cells are vulnerable.
Hayflick views longevity as governed by the excess or reserve physiological capacity that humans, individually, have.
Genes “do not drive the aging process,” he writes, “but they indirectly determine potential longevity.”
Research into so-called longevity or longevity-enabling genes is in the very early stages. Studies have focused on genomic regions on specific chromosomes, as well as on putative genes and alleles, an allele being a part of a pair or series of genes. The ApoE4 allele, implicated in Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular disease, has the distinction of being the most-studied for its effect on longevity—but as a deterrent to a longer life, not as a furtherance.
While elderly twin and centenarian studies strongly suggest that there is a hereditary component to longevity, particularly exceptional or extreme longevity, such studies are still too few to form conclusions. Anecdotal evidence, from the lives of long-lived people such as Emma Morano, supports heredibility, however.
The number of 100-year-olds in industrialized nations is reportedly increasing at a rate of about 7 percent per year. According to the United Nations, there will be 2.2 million centarians in the world by 2050, about 298,000 of them in the United States.
With this surge in study subjects and their descendants and the development of less expensive and more powerful molecular genetic techniques, it is likely that scientists soon will achieve breakthroughs in aging determinants, both genetic and environmental.