Mary Harris: I’m Mary Harris, this is Only Human. And today we are going to start this episode by bringing in Kenny Malone. Kenny is our brand new reporters and he came with… are these Miller High Lifes?
Kenny Malone: The champagne of beer. [Sound of beers opening] It’s warm, it’s really hard to find. To long life, Mary. [Clink]
MH: I’m all for beer in the studio, but what are we celebrating?
KM: This will make sense, just stay with me for a second. The story we’re going to launch into started a while back for me I got really interested in people who live the longest. It was an article or video or something, I don’t remember which exactly. But some version of this:
Newscaster: Richard Overton was born May 11, 1906.
KM: This is coverage of one of America’s oldest living veterans.
Newscaster: Heading to Hawaii, Guam and Iwo Jima…
KM: Richard will turn 110 in May. At which point he will no longer just be a centenarian, he will become a supercentenarian. And we, the local and national media, we love doing stories about these folks. But then at some point... these stories take an inevitable turn towards the same idea: the secret to longevity…
Newscaster: One reason he’s lasted so long? Kenny: The secret to longevity. Report: Brown liquor.
MH: Brown liquor!?
KM: Yeah, whiskey. They say he puts it in his coffee every morning.
Richard Overton: When you put that whiskey in there, it’ll make your muscles warm.
Cut to an exterior of Richard Overton’s house. Now the reporter is lighting a cigar for him.
RO: I smoke 12, maybe 13, maybe more than that.
KM: The more absurd the secret to longevity, the more it seems to make headlines. A world’s oldest person who drank port every day, or rice vodka or ate bacon. And probably the most insane is Agnes Fenton from New Jersey…
Newscaster: A woman who just turned 110 years old on Saturday says that her secret to a long and happy life has been three Miller High Lifes and a shot of Johnny Walker Blue every day.
MH: So we have a while to go here, I need to have like 2 more of these.
KM: Yeah, it’s a long session, so hang tight.
MH: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is not exactly what the Surgeon General recommends.
KM: Yeah, I mean, I’m no surgeon general but that question does make sense to me. Like, if you see someone living an absurdly long life why would you not ask? Like what did you do to get there? What is the secret to long life?
MH: And today on the show, Kenny, you’re going to find out if we’re getting any closer to answering that question. And, what it means that we keep asking it.
KM: Just to clear this up at the top: You may have heard of Blue Zones -- Islands in Greece and Italy and Japan, for example that have an abnormal number of centenarians. But centenarians are babies compared to the people I want to talk about today. Supercentenarians -- people over 110 -- they are exceedingly rare. According to a group in California that tracks this, there are about 10 verified supercentenarians in the United States right now. Which is why I was so surprised when I learned about a study that’s been going on since the mid-1990s.
KM: Do you know how many supercentenarians you have in the study at this point?
Tom Perls: We have 150.
KM: This is Tom Perls.
TP: I am a professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston University School of Medicine.
KM: Tom runs the New England Centenarian Study. Those 150 supercentenarians he mentioned are from all over the world -- many have died over the last few decades. But still, Tom and his team have had a chance to ask A ton of supercentenarians that question: What is your secret?
TP: And we take note of them for sure… uh but.
But honestly, he says, it’s not really even the right question to be asking in the first place. Not if we’re talking about people who make it to 110.
TP: Right. They are not the people we should be going to understand what health habits are the right way to go.
Because by the time you make it to 110, it’s not so much about what you were eating, it’s about being sort of a genetic freak. Which is where Tom is interested in looking for secrets. He’s like a post-modern Ponce De Leon. Instead of trudging through Florida looking for the Fountain of Youth, he’s digging into mounds and mounds of genetic information. Not looking for one or two special genes… something even rarer.
TP: You know, winning the lottery if you get one or two numbers it’s not so hard. Getting seven numbers? That’s really hard.
KM: Tom likes to talk about this in terms of lottery.
TP: That’s how I would think of it.
KM: So let’s go all in on this lottery thing. In our case, winning the lottery is becoming a supercentenarian. Okay, Mary, let’s say you’ve been born.
MH: Which, I have.
KM: Right. So instead of number balls we have genes. Now, Tom doesn’t know exactly which genes just yet… but the winning combo could be.
TP: Genetic pathways that could have something to do with DNA repair.
KM: Or genes that help fight cell damage from free radicals.
TP: Or to decrease your risk for diabetes.
KM: Or the ability to manage stresses. Genes that…
TP: That individually have very modest effects but as a group if you get the right combination it’s a very strong effect.
KM: To get a winning ticket, Tom thinks you’d need maybe more than a hundred of these things.
TP: I think the chances of having that ticket, it’s like winning the Powerball.
KM: Just to have the ticket to begin with.
KM: Because even if you win, you could lose your ticket. Chain-smoking or drinking a pint of vodka every day. Or you could be gored by a bull in Pamplona, crushed by a meteorite.
TP: And a whole range of other things you can imagine would interrupt your travel to such an age.
KM: If you’re thinking now, we ask supercentenarians what’s the secret to long life and we learn: Genetics? Great.
MH: Yeah, kind of thinking that right now.
KM: I was thinking about that too and I sort of said as much to Tom:
TP: Well, um, no I think you should stay tuned!
KM: Because, he said, we may still learn some secrets. For example how these 110 year olds seem to slow down the aging process and delay diseases.
TP: We are not trying to get a lot of people to be 110. And if we can get a bunch of people to age 90 in relatively good health, we will be very, very pleased.
KM: Tom did mention something else that we can only learn from studying -- as he calls them -- the oldest old. Something I think is sort of bigger than just a secret: How old a human being can get. At some point I asked him, you know, do we know what the human lifespan is? And he said:
TP: Well, Madame Calment defined the human lifespan.
MH: Who is Madame Calment?
KM: A very little, very old, French lady.
Jean-Marie Robine: Okay, I’m an old boy now. Approaching the French retirement age.
KM: This is a Frenchman…
KM: How do you want me to say it: Jean-Marie?
JM: Jean-Marie, it’s perfect.
KM: Jean-Marie Robine. He’s a demographer. He got a chance to study this French lady. And that story starts in the late 80s, early 90s. Jean-Marie had been doing a survey of France’s centenarian population and noticed at some point this 115-year-old woman. And so naturally he was blown away. He dropped everything and he investigated.
JMR: No. No. No.
KM: No, he actually totally ignored it at first.
KM: Why wouldn’t you go see her? That’s crazy.
JMR: Because I’m not a clinician. You know, I’m more a mathematician, if you want.
KM: And this lady was an outlier, and Jean-Marie was studying trends. Two years go by. He sees a news story -- she’s still alive and he is gobsmacked.
JMR: It was just amazing. So I say: I have to go, I have to go. I have to see her.
KM: Jean-Marie sets up an appointment with her nursing home. When he gets there, he’s greeted by the nursing home’s doctor, who does not have good news.
JMR: And he’d say: Oh my dear. My dear. It’s too late. Now she’s, she’s totally deaf.
KM: Totally deaf.
JMR: If you had come a few weeks before it could have been possible talking to her but I don’t know -- a few weeks now she’s totally deaf.
KM: But the doctor agrees to take Jean-Marie in anyway. They walk into the room and there she is: 117-year-old Madame Jeanne Calment.
JMR: Seated in a quite big armchair.
KM: Whitish, silver hair. About four-and-a-half feet tall. Probably less than 100 pounds. Basically, Jean-Marie says, she’s what you might imagine.
JMR: A very, very old lady.
KM: The nursing home doctor says something like “Good morning, Madame Calment.
JMR: And immediately she answered. ‘Good morning, Doctor!’ “He was surprised, he was confused, maybe he was a little bit upset, so he was calling the staff. ‘Can I see the nurse!’ ‘Can I see the chief nurse!’ ‘And can you explain me what cure!?’ Did you? Did you? Did you wash? Did you clean? I need an explanation!
KM: And that, it would turn out, was Jean-Marie’s first interaction with a woman who would become the oldest human being ever. At 117 -- when she and Jean-Marie first met -- Madame Calment was nearly blind. And she was nearly deaf. But not always. Like a light flickering out, a body that old works better some days than others. Jean-Marie decided to pull together a small team to find out everything he could about this woman. In essence, a study to ask: What was her secret? So he started going back to talk to her regularly.
JMR: Each time everything we did was recorded…
[Shouting in French.]
KM: This isn’t an official research recording, but Jean-Marie says it is a pretty good example of how this process worked. In this video you can see the nursing home doctor – the one who told Jean-Marie that Madame Calment was deaf. Madame Calment is sitting in a big red chair next to him. Her hair is impeccably permed, her face is scrunched up in a way that makes it look like she’s very serious all the time. The doctor leans within maybe an inch of her and basically shouts the question into Madame Calment’s ear.
[Sounds of Calment speaking muffled French]
KM: That is Madame Calment. Saying, essentially, that she lived with her parents until getting married.
JMR: In total I went maybe forty times. Maybe each time it was like 45 minutes.
KM: They’d talk about where she was from.
JMR: This small city, Arles.
KM: She was born in 1875. She got married. She had one daughter. She never really had to work.
JMR: She was doing absolutely nothing.
KM: They dug way back into her ancestors.
JMR: Like uh, great, great, great, great grandmother. Something like that?
KM: But not just biographical details. They were interested in how her brain was working. They noted that she still told jokes, with good timing.
JMR: Like an actor.
KM: They did these mental tests, which apparently Madam Calment was very good at, where they’d ask her like, what’s bread?
JMR: You can say bread is what you eat with cheese! And after that what is a dog?
KM: A dog. So dog is the thing you pet, or it barks.
JMR: Yes, first instance. And if you don’t find the word, you can say ‘wah wah’.
KM: Wah wah?
JMR: I’m sorry I don’t know what they are doing in American, but in French...Woof! Woof!
KM: Wait, in French the dog says ‘wah wah?’
JMR: The French dog -- wah, wah. But woof. Sorry.
KM: You can say two main things about how Madame Calment got so old, Jean-Marie says. She didn’t live a hard life, you can’t say she had a lot of stress. More importantly, genes. Her ancestors lived absurdly long lives. On average, 22 years longer than expected. Jean-Mariestarted the study when Madame Calment was 117, they were still there, still studying when she turned 120!
[Sounds of a party]
KM: This is video from Madame Calment’s 120th birthday party. It was a huge to-do. Madame Calment had her own stage. She wore a fancy dress. She was fielding reporter questions. At this point in her life, we now know, that Madame Calment was the oldest person ever.
MH: Like oldest since beginning of time?
KM: I mean, it’s possible. Technically we have to say she’s the oldest person ever recorded. She lived to be 122 years, 164 days old. Which is now the number we use for human lifespan.
MH: So human lifespan, that’s different than life expectancy?
KM: Maximum human lifespan is much simpler: Just how long have we seen people live? Answer: Madame Calment’s age.
MH: 122 years…
KM: And 164 days. So this video of her 120th birthday party -- she was already breaking the record. When I watch this I think, right there, you can see Madame Calment take a breath. That was one more breath that we did not know human beings were capable of reaching.
MH: She’s like the ultimate endurance athlete. But she’s only competing against herself.
KM: Yeah. But! Let’s rewind the birthday tape. Because this is what surprised me most about this story. That tape to me is about the human species and mankind and what’s possible. But Jean-Marie Robine was at that party. And he saw something completely different.
JMR: It was just awful!
KM: What he saw was this little old lady. And she was on the platform.
JMR: In this very big armchair. In this LaCroix dress.
KM: Basically turned into a spectacle.
JMR: And there is these spotlights. And crowded, it was too hot.
KM: One of the things reporters liked to write about was how Madame Calment ate two pounds of chocolate a week. Maybe because of that, someone feeds her some candy on stage.
JMR: And nobody was coming to talk with her. To check whether it was going well or not. She was on the stage. Can you imagine? You can see Fellini making this kind of movie. It was just crazy.
MH: It just sounds sad.
KM: I know. I was a little surprised. I mean to talk to Jean-Marie about Madame Calment. But from his perspective, there’s a whole other story about us: And do we turn the oldest people on Earth into circus attractions? And that is where we’re headed after the break.
MH: You’re listening to Only Human. We’ll be right back.
MH: This is Only Human, I’m Mary Harris. We’re looking at the world’s oldest people and back for part two is Kenny Malone. Quick summary, Kenny.
KM: We started with Miller High Life as the secret to long life and wound up questioning our own humanity. So -- basic night at the bar I suppose.
MH: You were talking about the person with the longest lifespan, ever. Madame Jeanne Calment. But we are constantly finding new ways to keep track of old people. And I know this, because my son Leo just got his second copy of the Guinness Book of World Records this year.
MH: Okay, so what have you looked at in this so far.
LH: Well, there’s (flipping).
MH: There are some of the old standards, longest fingernails, for example: 32 feet total.
MH: Oh my God, look how gnarly, they’re all twisty.
Leo: Like, what parent would, like, want them to grow nails like this long?
MH: I don’t know, man.
MH: There are a lot more piercing records than I remember.
LH: Largest ear lobe flesh tunnel.
MH: Largest earlobe flesh tunnel?
KM: That one is within my grasp I feel.
MH: You could do it, lean in Kenny.
MH: I didn’t even know that was a record you could set.
LH: Gross record though.
MH: And when you flip a page. There’s a whole section oldest people -- the oldest bride. Oldest bungee jumper. Oldest person to swim the English Channel. And, of course, the classic.
MH: Oldest people. Can you read some of it to me?
LEO: Oldest living people: Jeralean Talley, USA, born 23rd of May, 1899.
MH: 1899! She’s still alive?
KM: Actually, she is not still alive. This is a title tens to turns over a fair amount -- it’s the oldest person alive right now. According to the guy who verifies the record for Guinness it turns over like once every nine months.
MH: So I guess there’s always someone whose about to have the spotlight shift to them.
KM: And compared to what is about to come, in relative obscurity. Jeralean Talley died on June 17th. And like that (snap!) the spotlight shifted.
Newscasters: The next person who could possibly claim the status is Susannah Mushatt Jones. Susannah Mushatt Jones. Susannah Mushatt Jones, of Brooklyn, New York. Who is only a few weeks shy of her 116th birthday.
KM: That 116th birthday party was going to be a blowout.
Sam Green: We got there super-early, I wanted to just make sure we would get a spot.
KM: This is documentary filmmaker Sam Green. Sam made a movie about Guinness Records and, along the way, got sort of fascinated by the ritual of anointing a new oldest person. Susannah Mushatt Jones’ birthday party was in the recreation center of her Brooklyn apartment building. There’s tons of press:
SG: Media is there.There’s Like 20 video cameras in a row and –
KM: There’s an MC on the mic.
MC: I have the best looking crew here –
KM: The place is packed. And eventually, from down a hallway, in a wheelchair, rolls the woman of the hour.
Announcers: Oh, Ms. Susie’s here, watch out. Leave it to Ms. Susie for surprising us! Let’s hear it for Ms. Susie…
KM: Ms. Susie’s wearing a big white hat, a blue floral dress. She’s mostly blind and very hard of hearing. You won’t hear her say much. And it actually looks like she’s sleeping through a lot of the party.
Newscasters: Miss Susie’s resting right now, she’s hearing it all, we know that. I know her nieces know that --
KM: Sam says the party lasted more than an hour and included pretty much everything you can imagine.
SM: I’m not getting the right order here but there was a group of kids that did singing and dancing. The people from the Nets came, [KM: The Brooklyn nets basketball team.] Someone did a back flip, like gymnastics show, I don’t know what that has to do with the Nets. There started to be civic players -- from the New York City comptrollers office, from the New York City Department for the aging, or assemblyman. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries. I think the borough president said stuff. There was a proclamation that the mayor staff people read. And it was just one of these things where everybody wants a piece of it.
KM: At some point, someone brings a cake out.
Newscaster: Is that bacon on the cake?
KM: It’s frosting bacon…we’ll get to that. They light the candles, and they bring the cake to Ms. Susie. Sam says at that point, all bets were off.
SG: All the media people kind of like busted loose from their pen and stampeded up front. And I felt bad because everybody who there watching the event then could see anything because all the media were sort of right around Ms. Susie blocking everybody’s view.
KM: She does, she blows out the candle.
SG: She kinda blows out the candle.”
MH: All of this sounds really familiar.
KM: The commotion, the noise, the media circus all centered around a little lady in a nice dress? I see it -- there are definitely parallels to the 120th birthday party for the oldest woman ever, Madame Calment. It’s over the top. It’s a little cartoonish. But in the footage I’ve seen there’s a lot sweetness there too, I don’t totally get the darkness that we talked about earlier. But here’s where it takes a weird turn. If you look at the media coverage from that day:
Newscaster: …the oldest woman in the world lives in Brooklyn.
KM: There’s a little bit of Ms. Susie’s background.
Newscasters: Born in Alabama in 1899, she moved to New York after graduating high school and worked as a nanny.
KM: Some mention of the attendance and her family.
KM: But there is almost always bacon.
Multiple newscasters: Bacon. Bacon and grits. Bacon, eggs and grits for breakfast.
KM: This is right back to where we started. The myth of the one secret -- even the Today show.
Newscaster: Also trending this morning… the secret apparently to longevity. The key to the fountain of youth may be right in front of you on your breakfast table. That’s right. It’s bacon.
Al Roker: Yes!
KM: That’s Al Roker, he is super into this.
AR: That’s Susannah Mushatt Jones, at 116 years old she’s the world’s oldest person. Now revealed that she eats bacon for breakfast every morning.
KM: And there’s a silver platter on the desk.
Newscaster: Al, you should start we’ll pass to the left.
KM: Off comes the lid, it’s packed with bacon. Now everyone’s passing it around, eating bacon in the name of Susannah Mushatt Jones on live national television.
Newscaster: Yeah, yeah this is good…cheers! Bacon!
MH: REACTING TO TAPE. So you brought me beer and no bacon. But seriously, all anyone wanted to talk about was bacon?
KM: I mean not only bacon but a lot of bacon talk. And when I watch that, I think this woman is one of the last people born in the 1800s. She’s experienced the entire 20th century from railroads to hoverboards. And the thing we all hold on to is the bacon bit. It’s a strange legacy that’s, in some ways, imposed. And I started to wonder -- how true even is that little detail?
Which led me here.To Ms. Susie’s apartment building in Brooklyn. I was greeted by Ms. Susie’s niece, Lois Judge. We head upstairs, down a hall and into Ms. Susie’s apartment. The walls are covered in proclamations and well-wishes.
Lois Judge: And of course the President sends letters.
KM: Ms. Susie is just waking up and her home caretaker rolls her out of the bedroom for the day.
LJ: Here she comes.
KM: She’s in a nightgown. Her eyes are shut.
LJ: Hey, T.
KM: The nieces call Ms. Susie “T”, short for auntie.
Caretaker: Good morning. Lois, good morning.
Susannah Jones: Hm.
Caretaker: This is Lois, how are you? Say good morning. Say good morning to Lois. You’re not talking?
KM: Lois and the caretaker lift Ms. Susie out of her wheelchair and set her into a big electric recliner. They put a fleece blanket on her legs and set her up with a tray for breakfast.
Caretaker: Come sit forward. Here is your fork and you’re going to begin to eat your breakfast. Good.
KM: There’s a plate in front of her with a ton of food: grits, eggs and bacon. So, yes, the world’s oldest person does eat bacon. And this is probably the most famous bacon crunch you will ever hear. [Sound of crunching] But if you ask her neice Lois, she has no idea how that becan thing became her “secret.” In fact, she’s worried about people thinking that.
LJ: The bacon, I mean, she’s always eaten bacon from time to time, but not on a daily basis. This is only recently. We asked the doctor, “Should she be having this bacon everyday?” She said, “At this age, whatever she wants, give her.” That’s within the last few years.
KM: Alright, glad we could set the record straight on that.
LJ: Thank you! People can’t think it’s bacon, it’s not bacon.”
KM: Ms. Susie cleans her entire plate. Lois pats her aunt on the back and pretty shortly after Ms. Susie pulls her blanket over her head and looks like she falls asleep. Lois says since the 116th birthday party, her aunt’s cognition has started to wane a bit. She doesn’t talk as much as she used to. But there’s video, from two years ago. Lois is in it, she asks her aunt...
LJ: What’s your secret?
Ms. Susie: I don’t have a secret. I just live with my family. Family makes me happy.
KM: In Ms. Susie’s own words: Her secret -- not bacon. Family. You know, Mary, Sam Green, the documentary guy, said something that really stuck with me. That what we really want to ask the world’s oldest people is what wisdom they have to impart? What does it look like from the top of the mountain. But if we wait until someone is literally the oldest person in world, we’ve probably missed our opportunity to ask someone that.
MH: Yeah, by the time we show up with cameras and cheerleaders, all we can see is this person in the wheelchair.
KM: Maybe all we want to see is the photo-op version of it. Life at 116 is not easy for Ms. Susie. Her day to day life is not a cute headline and it’s not a very fun secret. There was this one moment while Lois and I were talking, Ms. Susie was off to the side, still sleeping, and she started rustling a little, and pulled the blanket off her head. Lois immediately scooted over to her side. This really was the only time I heard Ms Susie speak, unprompted.
LJ: You want all of this cover? You’re tired?
LJ: Are you tired?
LJ: Are you tired?
SMJ: I am tired.
LJ: I know you’re tired. You want to go to bed?
SMJ: Wanna go to bed.
LJ: But you just got up, right?
SMJ: I’m tired.
LJ: I know you’re tired. Okay. Alright. Yeah she’s tired. Alright, honey.
MH: That was Susannah Mushatt Jones the world’s oldest person, at 116… and her niece Lois Judge. You can see pictures from Kenny’s visit with Ms Susie at Onlyhuman.org. While you’re there, check out our Stick to It project - where you can sign up for a study we’re conducting about how to stick with your resolutions to exercise.
Only Human is a production of WNYC Studios. This episode was edited by Molly Messick. Our team includes Amanda Aronczyk, Paige Cowett, Kenny Malone, Julia Longoria, Ankita Rao and Fred Mogul. Our technical director is Michael Raphael. Our executive producer is Leital Molad.
Thanks to Sam Green for the audio from Ms Susie’s birthday party, and thanks to Sarah Elzas for recording our interview with Jean-Marie Robine. One more very special thanks this week to Kathryn Tam -- this is her last week on the show. We couldn’t be more grateful for all her hard work, and we can’t wait to see what she does next.
Jim Schachter is the Vice President for news at WNYC.
I’m Mary Harris. And I’ll be back with more next week.