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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Human Longevity

In The Holy Bible, many of the tales are centered around people who supposedly lived centuries. Noah was 905-years old at the time of his death, according to Genesis 9:29 and he built the Ark somewhere between 500 and 600 years of age! While experts and scholars have argued these ages in many ways (mathematical errors, different calendars, et.al.), the Bible contains many, many tales of people who lived to incredibly advanced ages; this stands in stark contrast to scientific data, which suggests most early humans had a lifespan of probably around 30-35 years - largely due to living conditions and predators. The oldest living person in the Bible was Methusaleh, who died at 969.

Longevity has always been a major concern for Man. Herodotus attributed the longevity of the Ethiopians to a river whose waters had magical properties. Many historians say this is the origin of the Fountain of Youth which propelled Ponce de León to discover Florida. Greek and Roman mythology is filled with promises of immortality and eternal youth and Christians believe their Salvation grants them life after death - their souls become immortal. The Epic of Gilgamesh - among the first known works of literature - centers on immortality.

In modern times, genetics - along with other scientific and medical branches - seek to help us live longer, healthier lives. The oldest living person is rumored to be between 121 and 134 years of age, though more reliable sources cite 113 (Tomoji Tanabe of Japan), and the oldest blogger recently passed away at 108 (the new record may now well belong to former movie star, Kirk Douglas). One Elizabeth Jones Bolden died in 2006 at 116 and her predecessor for "oldest living person" was Emiliano Mercado del Toro, at 115. The oldest known American, George Francis, died last month at 112 - he'd seen three centuries (four years in the 19th, throughout the 20th, and eight years into the 21st)!

In his Histoire des personnes qui oni vécu plusieurs siècles, et qui ont rajeuni (1753), Msr. de Longueville Harcouet documented several cases of longevity, such as a Thomas Parke, an Englishman who "died without pain" at the ripe old age of 169 - but not before he did public penance "at the door of the church" for knocking a chick up at age 101! Harcouet also discussed the "cruel custom" of the Scottish of the Hebrides Islands, who put to death those who, "after 150 or 200 years, have become so decrepit that they are considered useless." According to Pliny (and Solinus - likely working from the former), there were people in Eastern India who lived up to four centuries, thanks to their diet of vipers. Paracelsus boasted of his "Mercury of Life," though he died at 37 - immortality was one of the main ambitions of Alchemy.

While immortality is at the center of many religions, beliefs, and practices, and some believe biological immortality is scientifically feasible (even possible within the next 20-30 years!), so far nothing can stave-off our finality. Of course, many advancements do prolong both life and livelihood, and some even have restorative properties. Many diets have been promoted as being able to extend one's life, free of drugs and medical procedures.

At the time of this writing though, 115 is still far longer than most people live; the average life expectancy of a North American is 75-80 years, though lifestyle choices affect this dramatically. The longest-living people are thought to be members of an extended family (Bau), living in the small Italian village of Stoccareddo. There, the average life expectancy is a whopping 90-years old and the citizens are said to be free of both heart disease and diabetes, as well as many other diseases which vex most of the world's population. No one knows why.

© C Harris Lynn, 2008

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