Hazards of being the world's oldest person

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Experience required

On any list of most stressful positions, expect to see air traffic controllers, nuclear reactor repairmen and beer vendors at Heinz Field near the top.

Based on the death rate of those holding the title of world's oldest person, however, theirs is the job that should rank No. 1. Just like drummers for Spinal Tap and minor league basketball franchises in Pittsburgh, these Guinness record-holders come and go with alarming frequency.

Elizabeth Bolden died a week ago in Memphis, not even four months after reaching a status she'd endured 116 years of competition to achieve. Before her, Maria Esther de Capovilla's reign as oldest in the world lasted a mere eight months.

Evidently, the strain of being trotted out on birthdays to smile for the cameras and answer a few questions about lifelong dietary habits is more than these folks can bear. If they were smart, they would probably just decline the crown when the fella from Guinness comes around to offer it. After surviving 115 or more years, there's no telling how long they might last if all the pressure that goes with that title weren't heaped on their thin shoulders.

Closing old gender gap

From the AP

There's something unusual about the new oldest person: It's a he.

Emiliano Mercado del Toro, 115, is striking a big blow for the unfairer sex by succeeding Ms. Bolden as the person recognized by Guinness and the Gerontology Research Group of Los Angeles.

The World War I veteran from Puerto Rico is the first oldest man in the past five years to also be oldest person. Of 78 world supercentenarians (people 110 or older) currently recognized by the research group, only eight have the same anatomical features as Mr. del Toro. A Canadian woman just 26 days younger than him is counting off the days until he slips in the shower or forgets to open the parachute when skydiving. Mr. del Toro is one of no more than a dozen WWI vets known to still be alive.

The gender disparity among really, really, really old people has no known basis. There's some speculation that it has something to do with women's greater estrogen levels. Others might believe that no man is simply willing to listen to female conversation for more than a century.

("Harry, that faucet has been leaking for decades now -- aren't you going to fix it? Harry? Harry! Don't you lie there with applesauce dribbling down your chin and pretend you don't hear me. To think, my mother told me I should have married that handsome blacksmith Ezekiel Turner, and I got stuck with you. Get up, Harry, for the last time!")

No one really knows

There was one notable exception to the dizzying turnover of people in Bolden's and del Toro's shoes.

Jeanne Calment of France made it to age 122 in 1997 before withdrawing from this competition called life. She spent seven years older than anyone else on the planet, at least to the best of anyone's knowledge. She smoked cigarettes until 97. Take that, all you U.S. surgeon generals.

Her title and those of all her oldest-person peers, however, should carry an asterisk, as no one knows for sure who's been around the longest. The Gerontology Research Group's list, at www.grg.org, carries a strong bias in favor of Western nations and a few other developed countries such as Japan. That's because these are the places that established national record-keeping such as censuses and birth certificates long ago to make proof of age possible now.

For all we know, there's some Mongolian yak herder or piranha trapper in the Amazon blowing out 117 candles on his -- or more likely her-- cake right now but possessing too much dignity to call up Guinness and make a case for the title. The GRG last year investigated but could not document a claim that a woman in the Sao Paulo area of Brazil was 125 (or older than the combined age of the mayor of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County chief executive and any two Starbucks employees).

Young at heart

Madame Calment was quite the bon vivant right up through 120 or so, singing songs and rapping and the like. She had ridden a bike until age 100. A young journalist supposedly asked her on her 120th birthday whether she could count on seeing Madame Calment the following year.

"I don't see why not; you look pretty healthy to me," responded the woman who'd had 12 decades to hone her comic timing.

No local candidates

Despite the incessant talk about how old Pittsburghers are, not a single one of us is on the GRG supercentenarian list. Not one Pennsylvanian, in fact, has been on the list since a 113-year-old resident of Potter County died last December. That presumably will change once all of the new Downtown condominiums open, so old people will have a chance to live in the city without navigating any of our infamous steps or hills.

Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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