Using mathematical modelling, Swiss and French researchers have confirmed that Jeanne Calment died at 122 years of age in 1997, making her the oldest person to have ever lived and debunking various conspiracy theories.
The Frenchwoman’s exceptional longevity has been regularly questioned over the years. In 2018, a Russian research team set off a scientific controversy when it claimed that Jeanne Calment had “only” lived to 99 years old and that her daughter had used the false identity of her mother in order to avoid paying inheritance tax.
In a studyexternal link published on Monday in the Journal of Gerontology, a team of researchers that included scientists from the University of Geneva and the University Hospitals of Geneva confirmed that this conspiracy theory was “unfounded”.
To refute the claims, the researchers unearthed several historical documents, including an article published in the local press in 1934 in the French city of Arles - where Jeanne Calment lived - attesting that a "particularly large crowd" had attended the funeral of her daughter Yvonne, who died at the age of 36 from an illness.
The researchers point out that it is hard to imagine that so many witnesses were not aware of the identity fraud, "unless they accept the idea of the complicity of dozens of people".
One in ten million
The study also quashes another argument by the Russian research team, who argued that it is statistically impossible for a human being to live to 122 years of age.
By examining the longevity of people born in France in 1875 and 1903, researchers found that someone had a one in 10 million chance of reaching the age of 122. While the probability is small, it is not a statistical impossibility, according to the study authors.
"Considering that humanity has accumulated at least 8 to 10 million centenarians since the 1700s, the existence of a 122-year-old person around the late 1900s is something plausible," explained Dr. François Herrmann, one of the study authors and a geriatrician at the University Hospitals of Geneva.
What was the secret to her longevity? It must have been a mixture of good genetic heritage and luck, say the researchers.