What the Death of the World's Oldest Human Means for Longevity

Will anyone live longer? Maybe.

flickr/ Sharada Prasad CS

The oldest man in the world died on Sunday at his home in Indonesia. Sodimejo, known to many as Mbah Gotho, claimed to be 146 years old. While the Indonesian government only started tracking births in 1900, Sodimejo has identification papers that say he was born in December 1870. And though his age was called into question in 2016, Indonesian authorities have confirmed the validity of his documents. If they’re right, he was the oldest person on record.

This would mean that the oldest human was 24 years older than what we have previously even thought possible for aging. And in a world filled with people obsessed with living forever, people are hungry for the keys to slowing the inexorable process of bodily and mental decay.

Unfortunately, Sodimejo doesn’t appear to have had many answers that doctors could bottle. A lifelong smoker, he cited patience and close relationships with loved ones as the keys to his longevity. Nevertheless, besides the whole smoking thing, this is good advice, even if it is a little underwhelming.

But having a positive attitude doesn’t seem to sufficiently explain Sodimejo’s long life. His case, if true, would upend conventional wisdom about human lifespans. So what could account for it?

One possible explanation for why Sodimejo lived from 1870 to 2017 is not totally unique to him: Improvements in public health and sanitation affect everyone. When he was born, most people didn’t have electricity, running water, or access to science-based health care. Shortly before he died, though, he spent several days in a modern hospital. This is a huge change from the era of his birth.

The common causes of death during much of Sodimejo’s life — such as water-borne pathogens, tuberculosis, or even infections that settle in minor scrapes — are now considered to be almost completely preventable. So while many people who were born around the same time as Sodimejo may have fallen victim to illnesses or accidents that are now treated as routine, he beat the odds for a man born in 1870.

But that doesn’t seem to explain his whole situation. Other people in his peer group also dodged preventable diseases before they were curable, so if we choose to explain his long life as beating the odds, we still need another way to explain why he outlived his peers by so long.

In 2016, scientists said that the upper limit for human aging is 115 years old and that this limit is “fixed and subject to natural constraints.” The matter is far from settled, though; other researchers in the field vigorously disagreed about whether there could be a fixed upper limit to human aging at all. Directly contradicting that study in the same year that it was published, Jeanne Calment, who at the time was the world’s oldest person, died at 122 years old.

Besides, while seemingly irreversible physical changes like slowed mitochondrial regeneration and telomere shortening set in as we age, a fixed limit on aging doesn’t seem to make sense in light of average human lifespans that continue to increase each year.

So, the possibility that the limit to human aging does not exist remains. This doesn’t mean that all humans will live for a super long time because human illnesses vary in who they affect and are often unpredictable. It could simply mean that Sodimejo is on the far end of the bell curve, where outliers live. If that’s the case, then what’s to stop others from joining him there? We could be witnessing an era in which the maximum human lifespan simply continues to increase, and not just for the super rich.

Then again, it’s also entirely possible that Sodimejo wasn’t actually 146 years old.

Related Tags