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Last Updated: Friday, 2 September 2005, 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK
The 100+ club
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper
Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper, who has died aged 115
It's not enough to make it to 100 these days. Supercentenarians are pushing the age boundaries, but in the week when the world's oldest living person, and one of England's oldest people, both died, what kept them alive so long remains something of a mystery.

Its promise of immortality might be hard to resist, but if one were to prepare an elixir of life from the recipe books of those who have lived into extreme old age, death itself might appear more tempting.

Dutchwoman Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper, who died this week at 115 after becoming the oldest living person in the world, attributed her longevity to a diet of pickled herrings.

The oldest person ever, Jeanne Louise Calment, who passed away in 1997 aged 122, enjoyed a daily glass of port, while Hanna Barysevich, of Belarus, one of several unofficial "oldest living people", has sung the virtues of gherkins, pork fat and vodka.

In Japan, Kamato Hongo, who lived to 116, recommended green tea and the odd cup of herb wine. And Britain's oldest survivor, Lucy Victoria d'Abreu, 113, champions a "customary sun-downer of brandy and ginger ale".

But while such home-spun recipes don't cut any ice with scientists, there's no doubt Ms d'Abreu is a member of a very select club indeed - the supercentenarians.

There are three ways to ensure a longer lifespan, says Dr Jim Stone
Genetic intervention - but science has yet to get a firm grip on this
Selective breeding - a very long-term option
Calorific restriction - halving calorie intake while maintaining nutrients
The last is a "sure fire way to increase lifespan" says Dr Stone, of Sheffield University, "but a miserable way to live"
The term applies to anyone older than 110 and, according to the US Gerontology Research Group, there are 68 supercentenarians in the world today. None of them were born in the UK - Ms d'Abreu was born in India.

Extreme old age has always fascinated us - from Biblical stories of Noah (500 when he had his first son) and Methuselah, who chalked up 969 years, to Jonathan Swift's Struldbruggs - a race of immortal beings in Gulliver's Travels.

In the case of today's record holders, some of our intrigue is based on the sheer sweep of history these people have witnessed.

Florence Reeves, who died at 111 this week after becoming one of the oldest people in England, was 20 when World War I broke out, middle-aged at the outbreak of WWII and retired before Elvis Presley even charted.

But our intrigue is also aroused by self-interest, says Ian Philp, a professor of health care of elderly people.

"We all have an interest in our own mortality. We all want to live long, healthy lives."

Yet no one knows exactly why a sprinkling of people live to such extreme ages.

Elvis Presley
Florence Reeves would have retired by the time this man emerged
"There's uncertainty in the academic world whether there is anything unique about people who live to be over 90, more especially 100," says Mr Philp, the government's director or older people's services. "But the evidence is that, yes, they are a bit unique."

That uniqueness is slowly wearing off. More and more people are hitting the 100 mark these days - there are about 6,000 in the UK.

Yet it seems extreme old age has been around longer than we might think. Even 100 years ago, a handful of people lived to be centenarians.

"The records from earlier periods are often unreliable so we can't be entirely sure but there have been people living into their 80s and 90s since at least the Greek civilisation," says Professor Tom Kirkwood, an authority on genetics and ageing.

The growth in centenarianism reflects the huge leaps in life expectancy made in the West during the past century. In Roman times the average life span was just 22 (mainly because of the appalling rate of infant mortality), by 1800 it was 40 years, 1900 around the late 40s and today it hovers around the mid-to-late 70s.

Yet scientists believe 120 or so remains a stubborn limit beyond which the human body cannot live without some serious - and so far unknown - genetic intervention. At the moment, genetics accounts for about 15% of what determines life span.

Roger Bannister
Lifespan is like the mile race - no one will run it in two minutes
"It's a bit like the world record for the mile," says Mr Kirkwood. "Once it was thought that no one could run a mile in under four minutes. Roger Bannister proved that wrong.

"The current world record can always be broken, but it's highly unlikely we'll see anyone run the mile in two minutes."

Sooner or later - and always by about 120 - ageing gets the better of us. It's a sobering thought that by the age of 30 the body is in a downward spiral.

It seems anyone with ambitions to make it to supercentenarian status can do little more than follow the advice we pretty much know already - eat healthily, exercise, don't smoke, limit alcohol intake and maintain strong social networks.

Genetic make up also helps, as does good luck.

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

My Mum's cousins, wife's mother will be 111 in Jan - does that mean she is the oldest living person in UK - Judi Ingelmells
Russell Grant, UK

The Nazirene Essenes lived to an average age of 120. How did they do that?

Firtly, give up all toxic foods (meat, dairy, non-organic) and eat only organic, wholesome, varied, 'living vegan food' (non-cooked). This way, one gets all the necessary proteins, carbs, fat, vitamins, mineral, anti-oxidants and enzymes, and because these simple foods provide the body with all it nutritional needs, one doesn't intake excessive calories!

Secondly, love and be happy. A positive mind is beneficial to the body. Stress, anger and depression shorten the life.

Thirdly, keep active, either by 'false' work (i.e. exercise) or better still, something more positive and constructive (e.g. gardening, DIY, crafts, walking)

Fourthly, breathe fully, deeply and slowly. The species that breathes at a lesser rate lives longer and inhales more oxygen.

Fifthly, bathe in fresh water daily and soak up some rays from the sun!
Graeme Lloyd, England

Vodka, brandy, pork fat... that's my weekend sorted!
Christopher Teague, Wales

I come from a family with most women living over 90 and many over 100. Despite that fact, environmental pollution and Mac trucks can shorten our lives despite good genes. Perhaps, it is most important to live good lives and enjoy the people around us. Thanks.
Margie Clow Bohan, Canada

You say that in Roman times the average life expectancy was 22 "because of huge infant mortality". Measuring life expectancy from birth is yields statistics which will do little to assist anyone old enough to understand them, and if the point is to measure biological life expectancy, the logical thing to do would be to measure life expectancy from conception (taking account of miscarriages, abortions and even the morning-after pill). If we took that approach, surely the average life expectancy would be much closer to what it was in the 1800s, or even in Roman times, but what would that really tell us? It would make much more sense to make the yardstick "life-expectancy for those aged 18 in year ___".

It's quite interesting when you plot the average age at death in history, from Noah and Methusela to the present The line is actually coming down from a massive 969 years to 20/30 in Roman times creeping up to only around 80 today. There is a physical limit of 120. So why did humans live much longer about 4000 years? Their natural lifestyles were no easier. Certainly their medical knowledge was poorer and of course there was no genetic engineering. I believe there is another ingredient that needs to be taken into account. How about reading the Bible again to see if we can find it?
David Bracey, UK

My Greek grandfather died 5 years ago, just a few months before his 100th birthday. He lived a full life, with six children, 15 grandchildren, 5 great grandchildren. I think his secret was two small glasses of wine a day (one with lunch and one with dinner), from a barrel he kept in the cellar of his cottage and renewed every year. He smoked rarely rolled tobbaco of good quality never cigarettes.
Maria, Birmingham,UK

Despite being in one of the poorest boroughs in the country my street has a fair share of super elderlies. I can think of four people in the street all well into their nineties when they died, and I recently walked a neighbour down the road to have tea with another, 93 and 92 respectively. And what did they talk about? Their children and street gossip!
vicky, East London

My Great Grandma lived to the age of 99 and she was in excellent health and put it down to eating onions every day. She had them with every meal in one form or another
Danielle Baldwin, England

My family is also long lived with my grandparents well into their nineties before they died and my parents still going strong in their eighties. The secret, insomuch as there is one, appears to be genetic and a healthy lifestyle - a combination of good food and sport but clearly the physiology of the individual is key.
Chris Lenton, UK

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