Old ar­gu­ment

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

For years, Jeanne Cal­ment has reigned as the old­est doc­u­mented per­son to have lived. She sup­pos­edly died in 1997 at age 122.

But now Rus­sian math­e­ma­ti­cian Niko­lay Zak has ex­humed that claim and star­tled re­searchers with a chal­lenge: He ar­gues that Cal­ment was ac­tu­ally Yvonne Cal­ment, Jeanne’s daugh­ter. Zak says Yvonne took her mother’s iden­tity to elude in­her­i­tance taxes in the 1930s. If so, Yvonne Cal­ment would have been 99 in 1997—not 122.

Zak of­fers ev­i­dence—though it’s not con­clu­sive—to but­tress his the­ory. For in­stance: Cal­ment was nearly the same height at age 100-plus as she had been at a younger age; older peo­ple usu­ally lose height as they age. A pass­port for Jeanne in the 1930s shows a dif­fer­ent eye color en­tered for her than what was noted in later life. Zak cites a litany of dis­crep­an­cies in her ac­counts of de­tails of her life over time.

We don’t know if Cal­ment was 99 or 122 when she died. But we all nat­u­rally seek clues from the habits of those who are healthy into old age. We want to be­lieve that a per­sonal reg­i­men of diet, med­i­cal treat­ment, ex­er­cise or genes will carry us well into the ninth or 10th decade of life in rel­a­tive good health.

Can peo­ple live to 150? To which a prag­ma­tist who fears decades of de­cline might re­tort: Would any­one want to?

Whether she lived to 99 or 122, at least one of the Cal­ments de­fied the odds in many ways: She smoked un­til she was so old she had to quit be­cause she couldn’t light a cig­a­rette with­out as­sis­tance.

What­ever the out­come of this tem­pest, here’s what we re­mem­ber: Cal­ment rode a bike un­til she was 100. She loved choco­late and re­port­edly ate 2 pounds a week. In 1995, this page noted that Cal­ment was blind, al­most deaf, and used a wheel­chair, but still pro­claimed that “ev­ery­thing in life” in­ter­ested her. That’s a fine ex­am­ple for the rest of us— at any age.

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