Gerontology Wiki
Gerontology Wiki

About Debunking Claims

For most of human existence, claims to extreme age existed as unverified claims.

With the development of systems of vital registration, it became possible to track the ages of persons using actual documentation.

Individual birth registration began with royal families and then nobility. Some of the first records began in Mesopotamia, over 4000 years ago. For most of human history, birth registration was limited to the privileged few. This began to change with the systematic recording of births for religious purposes (such as baptismal recordings) and government records (for tax registration). By the 1700s, some areas had achieved population-level birth registration, starting with Sweden in 1749.

History of Debunking claims

While skepticism of extreme claims pre-dated the ability to check them systematically, the idea of age validation of supercentenarian claims begins with William Thoms. The man who coined the term "folklore" in 1846 noticed that stories of extreme longevity from folk tales exceeded any proven age from life insurance policies. As life insurance rates and policies are based on the expected life of the policy holders, the initial interest in investigating extreme longevity claims was tied to the attempt to "close" life insurance tables. Thoms' early work suggested that extreme claims above age 103 were suspect, but could not validate a supercentenarian.

In Canada, the Tache investigation incorrectly "validated" the age claim of Pierre Joubert to be 113, by combining the birth and death records. It later was overturned in 1990, when further investigation showed this was a case of a father-son combination: Pierre Sr was born in 1701 and Pierre Jr died in 1814. Thus, the first supercentenarian "validation" turned out to be incorrect.

The first successful validation of a supercentenarian was by Thomas Emley Young who validated the Margaret Ann Neve case in 1898 (at 106).

Types of age misreporting

1. Religious Authority. In the Bible, extreme ages were attributed to patriarchs since elderly individuals were considered to be a fountain of wisdom. Examples: Abraham, "175".

2. Village Elder. This is similar to the Religious Authority myth, except that it involves ordinary people rather than religious figures. Examples: Moloko Temo, "134".

3. Fountain of Youth. In this testimonial fallacy, a particular substance is claimed to confer extreme longevity on people who consume it. Examples: Andean "glacial water", raw juice (as promoted by Norman Walker, said to be anywhere between 118 and 130, but actually 99).

4. Shangri-La. Similar to the Fountain of Youth myth, this myth holds that a geographical location, often a remote outlying area, offers improved quality of life and therefore significantly increased lifespans. Examples: Hunza Valley, Pakistan; Guangxi, China; Vilcabamba, Ecuador.

5. Nationalist Pride. Countries such as the former USSR have often promoted extreme longevity myths as "evidence" that they and their ways of life are superior to others. Examples: Shirali Muslimov of Azerbaijan, "168"; Javier Pereira of Colombia, "167".

6. Spiritual Practice. Similar to the Fountain of Youth and Shangri-La myths, this holds that a certain religious practice or philosophical belief can confer extreme longevity. Examples: Li Ching-Yuen, "256".

7. Family Longevity. Families often take pride in having a relative live to an extreme age, whether or not the age claimed is genuine. It is often the case that age claims increase the further back in time one goes. Examples; Mattie Owens, "119", William Coates, "114".

8. Individual and Family Notoriety. A person may claim to be an extreme age to bring attention to themselves or their family. Such claims may be unintentional due to cognitive impairment with age or being incorrectly told that one is a particular age. Examples: Mariam Amash, "124".

9. Military Age Misreporting. Ages have often been altered to either avoid a military draft or to enable an underage person to enlist. Alternatively, an individual may falsify military service for a variety of reasons, including attention seeking or qualifying for a pension. Examples: Walter Williams, "117", Merlyn Krueger, "114".

10. Administrative Errors. In this case, an individual does not claim to have lived to an extreme age, but official records say they have. Such errors often arise due to misidentification and incorrect transcription of documents. Examples: Damiana Sette, "110", Eva Jourdan, "112".

11. Pension or Social Entitlement Fraud. A person may falsify their age or assume the identity of another person for financial gain (i.e. claiming a pension early). In Japan, families have been found to have collected pensions for relatives who were still listed as being alive but died several years or even decades earlier. Examples: Ed Lee Bankhead, "119", Pearl Hackney, "117", Sogen Kato, "111" (actually died in 1978, aged 79).

False Debunking

Not every "debunking" has turned out to be correct. Sometimes, a case is "debunked" due to limited information. The claim of John Painter to be born in 1888 was initially "debunked" with a 1920 census listing indicating a birth year in 1891. Later, the 1900 census was located and substantiated his claim. One thing to remember is that the scientific method is a process, not a result. Results may vary and science is big enough to change the established position when the evidence warrants.

That said, there are also unsubstantiated conspiracy claims that attempt to "debunk" cases, often with unscientific methodologies. Assertions that validated cases are "double lives" is a common false accusation. Some have gone so far as to claim that "supercentenarians don't exist" when a massive amount of evidence proves otherwise. Thus, it is important to emphasize that overskepticism is also a risk.

Current situation

Many past claims of supercentenarian status have been debunked. Among the most important, and why:

1. Pierre Joubert the very first supercentenarian "validated" by an official investigation produced a false positive. The problem of improperly matching the birth record of a parent with the death record of a child was solved by adding the need for a third document, a mid-life document. Thus, all modern validation of supercentenarians includes a requirement for a minimum of three conditions being met: proof of birth, proof of death, and an intervening mid-life record that connects the two.

2. Walter Williams claimed to be the last veteran of the US Civil War. In 1959, research by Lowell K. Bridwell of the New York Times indicated that his claim was false. He was not 117, but 105.

3. Shigechiyo Izumi was verified to be the "Oldest Living Man" by Guinness World Records in 1978. He lived to 1986, dying at the recorded age of "120". In 1987, a year after his death, Japanese researchers leaked to the media the idea that he had been "only 105" and had taken on the identity of an older sibling who had passed away. Despite this leak, no evidence was ever presented in a scientific journal that debunked his age. That said, the situation was enough that Guinness World Records decided to withdraw support for the case in 2010. While the GRG has listed his age as "more likely to be" 105, the case has not been properly debunked. As such, some may consider the case de-validated, but not "debunked", as the evidence in support of debunking has never been properly published.

4. Carrie White once considered the World's Oldest Person by Guinness World Records in 1989. Research published in 2010 suggested that she was likely only 102 and her age had been mis-estimated when she was entered into a mental health institution in 1909, following what was then described as "post-typhoid psychosis". Despite support for the case being pulled and evidence published, the evidence is not firm enough to be certain. Thus, the Carrie White case is best considered to be partially debunked. Additional research may be needed. All documents from 1920 onward agree with an 1874 birth and the only document supporting 102 so far located was the 1900 census.

5. Kamato Hongo was once considered the World's Oldest Person by Guinness World Records, 2002-2003. Research published in 2010 suggested that her age may have been altered, perhaps to hide a teenage pregnancy. It has been estimated that her actual age was more likely to be 110-112 than 116 as claimed. Given an older sibling was born in 1890, it's firmly established that she could be no older than 112.

6. Lucy Hannah was once considered the third-oldest validated person ever, having been accepted as valid in 2003 by the SSA Study. As the SSA Study was part of the International Database on Longevity and had shared results with the Gerontology Research Group, the case was accepted as valid by all three. As Jeanne Calment was older and there was no public claim made, this case was never in consideration for the Guinness World Records title. Because her validated age of "117" was one year less than the claimed age of "118", at the time this was considered evidence of data cleansing. Research at the time seemed to be fairly strong that the person listed in an 1880 census match as "5" years old was the one who died in 1993, age 117.

However, there were a few issues of process to consider: A. The case was validated at a time when census matches were still made using hand-cranked microfilm, not computerized search records (even by 2004, less than 20% of US Census records were online on B. The SSA Study documentation was not cross-shared, only the citation that the documents existed. C. There was no public claim of a "Lucy Hannah" being a supercentenarian.

That said, it was not until 2015 that a document calling Ms. Hannah's age into question was located (as these records went online in 2015). This suggests that, in part, validation/invalidation results can be improved when more material becomes publicly available electronically. In 2020, the Lucy Hannah case was publicly debunked. Her actual age appears to be more likely to be 97 (based on the marriage record) or 98 (based on census match).