Last month, a 114-year-old former schoolteacher from Georgia named Besse Cooper became the world’s oldest living person. Her predecessor, Brazil’s Maria Gomes Valentim, was 114 when she died. So was the oldest living person before her, and the one before her. In fact, eight of the last nine “world’s oldest” titleholders were 114 when they achieved the distinction. Here’s the morbid part: All but two were still 114 when they passed it on. Those two? They died at 115.
The celebration surrounding Cooper when she assumed the title, then, might as well have been accompanied by condolences. If historical trends hold, she will likely be dead within a year.
It’s no surprise that it’s hard to stay the “world’s oldest” for very long. These people are, after all, really old. What’s surprising is just how consistent the numbers have been. Just seven people whose ages could be fully verified by the Gerontology Research Group have ever made it past 115. Only two of those seven lived to see the 21st century. The longest-living person ever, a French woman named Jeanne Calment, died at age 122 in August 1997; no one since 2000 has come within five years of matching her longevity.