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Did Jeanne Calment Really Live to Age 122?

Margaret Lipman
By
Published Jun 14, 2024
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If you’ve ever found yourself wondering about the longest known human lifespan, you’ve probably come across the name Jeanne Calment, referred to as “la doyenne de l’humanité” in her native France. Born on February 21, 1875, Calment lived her entire life in Arles, where she died on August 4, 1997, at the age of 122 years and 164 days. Or did she?

For decades, Calment’s story has fascinated people around the world who have wondered about the “secret” of her longevity. She first came to national attention in France (and later international acclaim) around age 114, when she appeared in the 1990 movie Vincent and Me. Calment recounted the story of her encounter with Vincent Van Gogh numerous times in later life, though sometimes with slightly different details.

Though most would simply ascribe her long life to luck, good genes, and financial security (or perhaps even her nightly glass of port), others have wondered whether there was an actual secret that would explain how Calment appears to have lived so much longer than anyone else on the planet.

One of the biggest skeptics is Russian mathematician Nikolay Zak, who has posited a theory that the woman who died in 1997 was not Jeanne but her daughter, Yvonne, who was thought to have died in 1934 at age 36. If this identity switch had occurred, then Yvonne (posing as Jeanne) would have been 99 when she died in 1997. Zak has pointed to numerous pieces of “evidence” to support this theory, including inconsistencies in Calment’s recollections of her early life and physical discrepancies in photographs of Jeanne and Yvonne.

However, few experts have been convinced by Zak’s theory and its alleged motive—that by pretending to be Jeanne, Yvonne and her family could avoid paying inheritance taxes.

Because of the incredible publicity surrounding her longevity, the details of Calment’s life were examined extremely closely, both before and after her death. Numerous experts, including the French gerontologist Jean-Marie Robine, were involved in scrutinizing the veracity of her documents, photographs, and memories. And it is not particularly surprising that there are several inconsistencies in her account of her life. A lifetime of 122 years is a lot to keep track of, so it’s understandable that she would confuse some of the details.

At least until Calment’s validators can be proved wrong with more compelling evidence, the overwhelming indication is that Calment really was born in Arles in 1875 and died in 1997.

Doubting the doyenne of humanity:

  • *Calment is thought to have given a blood sample to the Chronos Project, now stored at the Fondation Dausset in Paris. Analyzing this sample might definitively put an end to the speculation over whether the woman who died in 1997 was Jeanne or Yvonne on the basis of DNA evidence. Notably, since Jeanne and her husband, Fernand, were double second cousins (their paternal grandfathers were brothers and their paternal grandmothers were sisters), Yvonne would have just 12 great-great-grandparents instead of the usual 16. However, proprietary and ethical issues have thus far prevented the sample from being tested in this way.

  • *If the Yvonne-Jeanne switch really had taken place, it would mean that Yvonne, posing as Jeanne, would have to pretend that her father was her husband and her son was her grandson. Given that the two women had lived in Arles their whole lives, it seems fairly ludicrous to imagine that their friends and neighbors wouldn’t have noticed the swap.

  • *Even those who believe Calment lived to age 122 can’t help but notice how much of an outlier she is. Her record for the longest-lived person is three years more than the second-oldest person, Kane Tanaka of Fukuoka, Japan, who died at the age of 119 years and 107 days, a huge difference considering that longevity records are typically broken by months, weeks, or even days rather than several years. For example, the third-oldest person, Sarah Knauss, had a lifespan just 10 days shorter than Kane's.

  • *As of June 2024, the oldest known living person is Maria Branyas, aged 117, who was born to a Spanish family in San Francisco on March 4, 1907. Branyas has lived in Spain since 1915.

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Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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