Grace Jones: The secrets of living a long life

Grace Jones, Britain's oldest person

Grace Jones has sadly passed away. Scientists say that our bodies have a built-in expiry date - so what about the quest for eternal life?

Grace Jones was Britain’s oldest person. The 113-year-old from Bermondsey, south London, was the last person in the UK who was born in the 1800s. Her fiancé, Albert Rees, was killed during the First World War and she never married afterwards.

“I just never found anybody who was as nice as he was. No one else came up to scratch,” she said last year. Her house was hit by a Doodlebug during the Blitz. Fortunately for her, that coincided with a family holiday in Coventry. She attributes her extreme longevity to: “Good English food. Never frozen.”

According to the Office for National Statistics, more than 95,000 people now aged 65 will live to 100, while one-third of babies born in 2012 will live to celebrate their centenary. But few will linger long enough to become supercentenarians – those aged 110 or over.

The Gerontology Research Group (GRG), founded in 1990 by Dr Stephen Coles of UCLA, California, keeps records of the very oldest OAPs. A global network of correspondents collect and check documents, creating a definitive picture of supercentenarians to aid research that aims to slow down or even reverse the ageing process within the next 20 years.

But who wants to live for ever? Could future generations coping with the legacy of a broken economy be able to support a geriatric population?

At time of writing there are only 56 GRG-validated supercentenarians alive, four of whom live in the UK. Andrew Holmes, aged 25, is a PhD student at the University of Liverpool, studying the genetics of metabolism and ageing, and has been a UK correspondent for the GRG for five years. His interest in the elderly began in infancy when he was gifted a Guinness World Records book for Christmas by his great aunt and uncle.

“It listed the oldest living woman as 119-year-old Sarah Knauss,” Holmes recalls. “The oldest person I had known then was 80, so for someone to live another 40 years after that seemed utterly remarkable.”

Claims to extreme longevity have been around since Methuselah blew out 969 candles in around 4990BC but a concise record system is a more recent development. Holmes investigates prospective supercentenarians using the electoral role and locating birth and marriage certificates.

“The UK has a pretty solid record system but many countries didn’t 110 years ago. This can really throw a spanner in the works sometimes. Unfortunately, [erroneous claims] make for good headlines and are picked up by the media: ‘156-year-old grandmother smokes 20 a day!’”

Many health problems we face in the first world, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes, are age-related, and gerontological research looks not at simply extending lifespan but extending the period we remain in good health. 

“People have an idea of what it’s like to be old,” Holmes says. “They’ve probably had elderly relatives in their 80s or 90s and I think they automatically assume living another 20 or 30 years must mean they would be in absolutely horrific health. That’s not the case. Many centenarians still live independently and in very good health.”

Grace Jones lived alone, cared for by neighbours and attentive local MP Simon Hughes, who celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and Christmas dinner with Miss Jones last year. After a break-in at her home in 2011 she was able to give evidence in court, helping to convict career burglar Jesse Coker. Another supercentenarian, Leila Denmark, from Athens, Georgia, worked until the age of 103 – as a paediatrician – and lived to be 114.

Living an extra-long time is not a burden to society. Studies have shown the healthcare costs of those who live the longest are less than those who have quadruple heart bypass surgery or advanced cancer treatment, as their extended lifespan is the result of living healthy and productive lives. That’s good news for Japan, whose citizens enjoy the highest life expectancy in the world.

As of September 2012, there were 51,376 Japanese centenarians, an increase of 7.6 per cent on the previous year, as the country tackles the world’s second-largest public debt and a falling birth rate.

At the turn of the century the Okinawa prefecture, a chain of islands that lie midway between mainland Japan and Taiwan, had the highest ratio of centenarians in the world. Dr Craig Willcox, a professor at Okinawa University, co-authored two bestselling books on healthy ageing, The Okinawa Diet Plan and The Okinawa Program, the latter singing the praises of a nutrient-rich, quasi-vegan diet and making the New York Times bestseller list in 2001. But the tide in Okinawa is beginning to turn as the healthy lifestyle of the islanders has been replaced by convenience food and easy living.

“They’ve gone from the leanest prefecture to the heaviest in a generation,” Willcox tells The Big Issue from his office in Okinawa. “We’re seeing a lot of problems with middle-aged and younger generations who’ve lived a very different lifestyle to the older generation. Younger Okinawans sit in front of their computers; people drive everywhere and they don’t burn many calories. We may see a drop in the life expectancy of the next generation.”

A few hundred miles north, in Kyotango, 116-year-old Jiroemon Kimura probably wouldn't have been concerned about other people’s life expectancy. He woke up every day at 7.30am, enjoyed a breakfast of porridge and miso soup with potato and vegetables. Kimura, who died in June this year, was the oldest man who has ever lived.

But while still alive, there was a Chinese contender for his title. After centuries of actual and economic war the latest battleground for the two Asian giants is longevity, as China declared at the end of last year that Luo Meizhen, from Bama county, had reached a truly ripened 127. For this claim to become official it would have to be verified by the Gerontology Research Group’s senior claims investigator, Robert Young.

“Some of those claims are what I call ‘zero percenters’,” Young says. “They’re basically dead on arrival.”

By day, 38-year-old Young is a market research analyst for AS-Tech Engineering, based in Cumming, just outside Atlanta, Georgia, but in his spare time he goes around handing out certificates to the most super supercentenarians, on behalf of Guinness World Records for whom he acts as senior gerontology consultant.

Speaking from AS-Tech’s HQ, Young explains why China’s claim, without the proper documentation, will most likely be rejected. “I’ll put it this way,” he says, “you can’t win the lottery if you don’t have a ticket.”

He adds: “I started this investigation partly because my great-great aunt lived to be 96. She died from a fall in the bathtub and that kind of made me disappointed. It was an accident and she could have lived longer – how long could she have lived?”

While completing a masters degree in gerontology, Young became disillusioned with the existing system of recording the aged. “The truth is, no person can live as long as their imaginations can take them,” he says. “It distorts the records.”

Today there are definitive lists of the oldest living supercentenarians, updated regularly on the GRG’s website ( Kimura-san may be the oldest man of all time but is a mere whippersnapper compared with Jeanne Calment, who reached 122 before expiring.

Born in Arles, France, in 1875, at the age of 13 she met Vincent Van Gogh, remembering him as “dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable”. She passed away in 1997 and there’s debate among gerontologists about whether her monumental age will ever be surpassed.

“There’s almost always someone alive age 114, which is the ‘cohort extinction line’. Age 115 is the ‘average maximum’ and age 116 is the highest age verified to have been reached in the last decade,” Young explains. “We have never had more than nine living 114-year-olds at the same time, and the numbers have risen and fallen like waves crashing on the seashore, or in this case, against our biological time clocks.”

Although there will continue to be an increase in the prevalence of longevity, scientists are not predicting an increase in lifespan. Everybody is born with a genetic expiration date – the Hayflick limit states that most cells in the human body live two years and will only divide between 40-60 times.

“There’s also a worry that some of the longevity gains made in the past might have to be backtracked a little bit,” Young says. “A recent study showed that the US had a higher life expectancy for over 80s than most other countries but the baby boomer generation wasn’t doing as well.”

However, changes in diet and lifestyle that may shorten people’s projected lifespan will probably be balanced out by advances in medicine, cancer treatment and prevention.

There are other important factors determining who lives longest. In 1999 British researchers projected that the oldest person in the UK in 2070 would be between 116 and 123 years old. The vast majority of 2070 survivors will be female. Of today’s 57 surviving supercentenar-ians, only four are male.

“Nine out of 10 people over 110 are female and that’s basically the same whether it’s Japan, the US or Europe,” Young says. “The interesting thing is, 90 per cent of the most premature babies – those born under two pounds – who survive are also female. It seems the female genome has more resilience.

"Part of that has to do with the genetics of having to go through childbirth. Weak females would die in childbirth and only the strong would survive. Men are designed for peak strength, built to fight in battle or for food. Peak strength borrows from future reserves and reduces the likelihood of living longer.”

Another contributing factor also comes from the Flintstones’ era. The ‘grandmother hypothesis’ theorises that while Fred would go out hunting, Wilma could be a stay-at-home mum. However, if grandma was around to look after Pebbles, Wilma could go out looking for nuts and berries, so a family with a grandmother would have the best food supply and consequently the best chances of survival.

There’s also the ‘double X hypothesis’. While men have one X and one Y chromosome, women have two X chromosomes. If one X chromosome is defective, men are stuck with it but women have a backup, which also explains why men are much more likely to be colour blind than women. “That’s basically the main advantage,” says Robert Young, “more chances.”

On its homepage the Gerontology Research Group lists its top tips for eternal life: 1. “Don’t die”; 2. “Be female”. If those things are unattainable for you, Young has additional advice.

“The main things I’ve gleaned are maintenance and moderation,” he says. “Jeanne Calment smoked cigarettes but only two or three a day. She smoked in moderation so was able to overcome the risks.

“And eat fish and seaweed,” he chuckles. “The Mediterranean diet is pretty good as well [Sardinia has the highest concentration of centenarians in Europe]. Not only are supercentenarians not obese now, they were never overweight in the past.

"Quantity means as much as the quality. Only eat until you’re 80 per cent full. Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Don’t get overly stressed. You want to get up and feel like you have something to accomplish that day but don’t overdo it.”

Bruce Lee believed “the key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering”. However, that key might actually turn out to be something a bit more medically-orientated. Dr Stephen Coles, founder of the GRG, is the leading expert in supercentenarian dissection.

He has collected DNA from 16 specimens and autopsied 10 of them, finding that at least half had healthy organs but that their blood vessels were clogged with a gloopy, fibrous build-up of a protein called amyloid – created by a process known as transthyretin amyloidosis, which can eventually cause heart failure.

“Amyloid accumulates in all of us but very slowly,” said Dr Coles in a 2011 interview. “There is no known cure. I like to think this is the Grim Reaper waiting in the wings, so if he didn’t get you with something else, he’s still got a shot at you.”

Dr Coles, aged 71, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Christmas Eve, 2012. He underwent surgery in January and has started chemotherapy treatment but his aim of reversing the ageing process continues unabated as the network of GRG contributors search for an antibody to the amyloid protein.

The key to a long life lies with supercentenarians. They are not just remnants of our past but a glimpse of our future. Well, the future of the very luckiest of us.

Top 5 tips from Britain's oldest ever OAPs:

Charlotte Hughes (Hartlepool, August 1, 1877–March 17, 1993)                                                            
"Live a good honest life and adhere to the 10 Commandments"

Eva Morris (Newcastle-Under-Lyme November 8, 1885–November 2, 2000)
"Whisky and boiled onions"

Anna Williams (Burford, June 2, 1873–December 27, 1987)
"A life of idleness"

Lucy Jane Askew (Loughton, September 8, 1883–December 9, 1997)
"No drinking, smoking or men" - She never had a boyfriend.

Annie Jennings (Chesterfield, November 12, 1884–November 20, 1999)
Ms Jennings did not like being included in the Guinness Book of Records and the secrets of her longevity remain secret.

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