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Long Lives and Tall Tales

If it was true, then it was extraordinary. But was it true? An Indonesian man called Sodimedjo has recently died in a village in Central Java. He was also known as Mbah Ghoto, or Grandpa Ghoto, but in fact he was a Great-Great-Grandfather, with five children, twelve grandchildren, seventeen great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. That is some achievement, but it wasn’t why Mbah Ghoto got into headlines around the world.

Instead, it was his age. He was said to be 146 years old at the time of his passing. He was born way, way back in December 1870. Or so his family said. Their claim was picked up by the Indonesian media, then repeated by countless newspapers and TV stations in foreign countries. Can we trust the claim? I don’t think so. Because that’s all it is: a claim. There is no birth certificate to back it up, because Indonesia started recording births only at the beginning of the twentieth century.

And even a birth certificate that looked authentic wouldn’t have been enough for sceptical doctors and scientists. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Mbah Ghoto’s family can’t supply it. There would need to be a long trail of documents, photographs and pictures taking Mbah Ghoto unmistakably back to 1870 before the sceptics were convinced. And there isn’t. Claims of extraordinary age – people said to have lived for more than 150 or 200 or even 250 years – have often been made before, but in every case the necessary evidence has been lacking.

When solid evidence is there, nobody has yet made it past their 130th birthday. Or their 125th. The longest life accepted by doctors is that of Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died in 1997 at the age of 122. They also accept that the oldest living person is Violet Brown, a Jamaican woman who has reached the age of 117. Is it a coincidence that both Jeanne Calment and Violet Brown are women? Of course not: it’s well-known that women live longer on average than men, particularly since medicine began to reduce the dangers of childbirth.

This is another reason to be sceptical about Mbah Ghoto in Indonesia, where women also outlive men. Could he really have lived 24 years longer than a woman in France, where the average life-expectancy is higher than in Indonesia? He certainly looked very old in photographs taken of him shortly before he passed away, but what else would you expect in a great-great-grandfather? And particularly one who, according to newspaper reports, was a heavy smoker.

No, it’s a good story, but no reputable doctor or scientist can accept that Mbah Ghoto got so far into his second century. Although life-expectancy has risen steadily almost everywhere in the world, there seems to be a natural limit on the life-span of human beings. More and more people are making it to their hundredth birthday, but no-one can hope to live long past their one-hundred-and-twentieth birthday. Indeed, only one person has certainly broken that barrier: Jeanne Calment.

But if 120 or so is the natural limit on human life-span, what is the unnatural limit? That is, how long might we live when science and technology begin to assist our bodies and slow or even reverse the effects of ageing? That’s an interesting question and we should see the answer sometime in the coming century. Mbah Ghoto almost certainly wasn’t born in 1870 and didn’t reach the age of 146. But many people born in 1970 might reach that age. And then live a lot longer.