THOUGHTS ON THE DEATH OF AMERICA’s OLDEST MAN, AGED 112

Overton

^ celebrating a 112th birthday : Richard Arvin Overton

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It was big news yesterday that Richard Arvin Overton, America’s oldest man, died just short of his 113th birthday. Overton was also America’s oldest World War 2 veteran. Politicians visited him, President Obama celebrated him. Such longevity merits all the praise we have to offer.

We all wish longevity for ourselves. The longer the better. Young death, we all mourn; death in the ordinary course, at age 70 to 90, we honor. “So sorry for your loss,” we say; “thinking of you at this difficult time.” We say these stock phrases because, as we all know, the fact of a loved one’s death cannot be worded properly. How do you say anything to a loved one who is no longer here ? “I wish I had had a chance to say a last goodbye” — how many of us have NOT ever said or thought this ? It is rare to be there at the bedside of a friend or loved one as she takes her last breaths, says her last words, holds our hand for a last time. We cherish those who are lucky enough to be there for the passing. Much happens at these moments. The loved one leaves, and we stay. We continue on. I think most of us, certainly I, feel a bit ashamed about that. How did I become the one to keep living, while she did not ? Yet the shame passes. Onward we live, striving for a long longevity. Some of us achieve it. Richard Arvin Overton over-achieved it.

Very few males live beyond age 110. 90 percent of these “super centenarians” are female. The world’s current oldest man hasn’t quite reached a 114th birthday. The oldest man ever, according to the Guinness Book, died aged 115-plus. At least 20 females have lived longer. The oldest verified of them, one Jeanne Calment, lived half a year beyond her 122nd birthday. Richard Arvin Overton fell ten full years short of Calment’s age. Stated this way, Overton seems less amazing than he was. Only about six of the 100 currently oldest living people are male.

Of those 100 oldest, all are at least 111 years old. Fifty years ago there might not have been five on such list. Clearly more people are living to the seeming physical limit, the years beyond age 110. Will anyone soon surpass Jeanne Calment ? It would appear not. No one ever, according to Guinness, has reached even 120, much less 122, and only one besides Calment has lived beyond her 118th. That age seems the likely limit. There may be an exception now and then, but despite medical advances that allow more people — many more — to live 111 to 117 years, no medicine yet achieved is able to get us beyond that age barrier. That said, living to age 111 and onward from that, to 117, continues to be unusual. Let us get a larger number of us into that age parameter before we start trying to break the 118 limit.

Or maybe I have it wrong. Just as we are about ready to send people to Mars, and can contemplate sending them into Jupiter or Saturn orbit, things not at all possible till now, perhaps we should try to break the 118 years barrier and send astronauts of life to the outer spaces of age ; 120 years, 125, 130, even 140. Aging, so we now know, is a process. It is not magic. Our body’s cells do not have to stop working, or to grow dim. If chemicals they are, and chemistry their mechanisms, so can chemistry refuel their tanks and keep them working, humming, powering us forward.

If thus there be, it cannot be for only one of us. Even at age 80, most of us have seen half our friends die and almost every parent. At age 90, every parent. At age 100, almost every friend. Live beyond age 100, and you are surrounded by your kids’ generation, your grandkids, even your great grandkids. This feels awkward. Among the young and the very young, one feels not only old but very old. Very very old. Age 85, you don’t talk the same as people age 30, you don’t dress the same, allude to the same social news. You’re a stranger in a strange place. Sure you can adapt — but an adaptation is still a construct, not nature, and you the 85 year old know it. Which is why if we become able to create astronauts of age, we have to create more than one. Ideally we’d create an entire community of age-o-nauts : ten at least, 20, maybe 50 or even 150. If we could create that kind of age situation, age might become as irrelevant as those who say “age is only a number:” want us to think. There’d be communities of people age 30 or so, out nightclubbing, and communities of people age 125 to 135, inside and singing, and the difference wouldn’t mean much more than differences of hair color or meal menu.

Perhaps Richard Arvin Overton had such visions in mind. Even at age 111 he looked fit and healthy, strong and firm. What went wrong in the vast system that was his body ? An autopsy will tell us. More to the point, what went right in his body system that got him past his 112th birthday ? Perhaps we should study the two men who live on, older than Overton. Perhaps we should also ask the females. It certainly seems as though whatever keeps us keeping on, female chromosome set-ups have more of it. In the coming era of age-o-nauts there will be males; but females will lead, will rule, will get us to the next phase.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere