Turinah, a woman who lives in south Sumatra, claimed to be 157 years old in the latest Indonesian census. She has no records to prove her claim, but other evidence suggests she might be telling the truth. Is it biologically feasible that a person born in 1853 could still be alive in 2010?
The current verified longevity record-holder was a French woman named Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at 122 years old. Natural causes of death are typically the same as the causes of aging, one of which is DNA decay within cells that adds up faster than they can be repaired.1 Cells will cease functioning when a vital DNA sequence is lost through decay or damage. The accumulation of enough critically damaged cells in any of the vital organs results in death.
There are many causes of DNA damage in addition to an inherited susceptibility to it. In contrast, remarkable longevity runs in some people's families. For example, Calment had close family members who also lived well past the age of 80. So, some people may have cellular DNA repair or DNA damage mitigation machinery that is in some way superior to that of others.
Calment's advanced age wasn't verified by laboratory tests. Researchers did not measure her growth or shrinkage rate, as these are too variable and require improvable assumptions on which to build estimates.2 They did not measure any decay rate in her cells, tissues, or teeth, because standard decay rates would be non-standard in someone with such longevity. In other words, these processes occur at different rates in different lineages, rendering such tactics too unreliable.
They did, however, check her birth date of February 21, 1875, against official, witnessed-signed documents, including her birth certificate. Demographic researchers J. M. Robine and M. Allard also compared some of Calment's factually stated claims with newspapers and "church, notarial, military, school, and municipal documents" to verify her age.3
Currently, the best way to verify a person's age is to check it against documents prepared by eyewitnesses. Calment had birth and baptism records that agreed exactly with her age claims. But Sumatra's Turinah does not. She claimed that she had to destroy all her documents in order "to avoid being linked to an alleged communist coup in 1965."4 An Indonesian statistics bureau official told the Agence France Presse, "There's no authentic data to prove her age but judging from her statements and the age of her adopted daughter, who's now 108 years old, it's difficult to doubt it."4
With all of the scientific advances of the last century, there is still not a more reliable way to authenticate someone or something's age than the ancient practice of relying on documents. When it comes to establishing historical events, which by definition are not subject to direct scientific scrutiny, the old ways are by far the best available.
If trustworthy documents remain the best means of gleaning the facts of history, then it stands to reason that reliable copies of the documents that were compiled to form the Old Testament can be regarded as far and away more reliable than any "scientific" guesswork about the past. And if no scientific process can authenticate the age of Turinah, who is still living, then what confidence should be afforded to the standard ages assigned to the fossilized remains of those who are deceased?
- Murphy, M. P. and L. Partridge. 2008. Toward a Control Theory Analysis of Aging. Annual Review of Biochemistry. 77: 777-798.
- Morris, H. 1974. The Young Earth. Acts & Facts. 3 (8).
- Robine, J. M. and M. Allard. 1999. Jeanne Calment: Validation of the Duration of Her Life. From Validation of Exceptional Longevity. Jeune, B. and J. W. Vaupel, eds. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press.
- Census records 157-year-old woman. Agence France Presse (AFP). Posted on abc.net.au June 7, 2010, accessed June 10, 2010.
* Mr. Thomas is Science Writer at the Institute for Creation Research.
Article posted on June 17, 2010.