The Secret to Longevity May Be Lying About Your Age

By Jenni Avins / Quartz

We can look to the life of Jeanne Louise Calment—the Frenchwoman famous for surviving some 122 years until she passed away in 1997—for French-y lifestyle tips about enduring to a ripe old age: Ride a bicycle until you’re 100; marry someone who will pay your bills; eat two pounds of chocolate per week; rub olive oil onto your skin; indulge in the occasional glass of Port. But now, a new paper poses that Calment may have had another old-fashioned method for reaching an impressive age: just lie about it!

Nikolay Zak, a researcher at the Moscow Center For Continuous Mathematical Education, posted an appropriately titled paper, “Jeanne Calment: the secret of longevity,” to ResearchGate, a social networking site for researchers, positing that the Calment who died in 1997 was not Jeanne at all, but rather was her daughter, Yvonne, who would have been a mere 99 years old. (The paper has not yet been peer reviewed, and the fact that it’s available on ResearchGate doesn’t indicate that it’s been accepted for publication anywhere.)

According to the New York Times, Yvonne died of pneumonia in 1934, leaving behind her husband and daughter. Zak theorizes that it was actually Jeanne who died in 1934, and that Yvonne, her daughter, assumed the identity of Jeanne in order to avoid paying inheritance taxes.

As Smithsonian points out, “There is no smoking gun, however, and the evidence he produces is largely circumstantial. He points to photos where the mother and daughter appear to resemble one another more closely than previously published images might suggest,” indicating that when photographed alive together, the women actually looked quite distinct. Zak also points out that when Yvonne passed away—according to official records—she left behind her 42-year-old husband, Joseph Charles Frédéric Billot, and a son. Billot never remarried; instead, he moved in with “Jeanne,” and the two of them raised his son together. Of course, according to Zak’s theory, the grieving Billot might have gotten along so well with his mother-in-law “Jeanne” because she was actually… his wife Yvonne.

Jean-Marie Robine, an expert on longevity who studied Calment in her final years and co-authored the 1998 biography Jeanne Calment: From Van Gogh’s Time to Ours, 122 Extraordinary Years, was not impressed by the theory. “All this is completely wobbly and is not based on anything,” he told Le Parisien, adding that conspiracy theorists have questioned the validity of Jeanne Calment’s “supercentenarian” status before, but failed to provide sufficient scientific evidence to the contrary. “I stand ready to continue the debate.”

Whether or not Calment was telling the truth, she became a French folk hero, and made out like a bandit financially, by outliving people she owed money to. As Jean-Marc Matalon noted for the AP in 1997: “She lives mostly off the income from her apartment, which she sold cheaply 32 years ago to a lawyer who agreed to make monthly payments on it in exchange for taking possession of the apartment when she died. He never got to do so. He died more than a year ago at age 77, but his family must continue to make the payments.”

For now, no harm in keeping up with that cycling, chocolate, and olive oil.


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