Winning at life: meet the oldest people in history

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Hoping to live as long as possible? You can start with our post on the science of living to 100, but it might also pay to take advice from the people who went a step further. Here are the five oldest people who ever lived, plus their tips for living a long and healthy life.

Jeanne Calment

122 years, 164 days

The all-time world champion of not dying is Jeanne Calment, who was born in 1875 in Arles, France. Calment lived for 122 years and 164 days before passing away in 1997, crediting her longevity to an olive oil-rich diet and a calm demeanor.

So how long is 122 years? Jeanne was born a year before the telephone was invented, but lived to see cell phones become commonplace. She was 39 years old when World War I broke out, 64 at the start of World War II, and 94 when humans first landed on the moon. She predated human flight by 28 years, but lived to see NASA’s shuttles make routine runs to space and back.

Calment’s longevity paid off for her in more ways than one. In 1965 at age 90, she sold her apartment to a man named André-François Raffray in exchange for the right to live there until she died and 2,500 francs per month. Unfortunately for Raffray, Calment outlived him by two years, and the monthly stipend he’d paid over the course of her life was more than double the apartment’s value.

One for the conspiracists…

The fact that Jeanne lived three years longer than anyone else in documented history makes her an extreme outlier, giving rise to an interesting theory: she wasn’t Jeanne Calment. Calment’s daughter Yvonne, born in 1898, died of pleurisy in 1934. But Jeanne’s extreme longevity lead Russian researchers Valery Novoselov and Nikolay Zak to speculate that it was actually Jeanne who passed away, with Yvonne assuming her identity.

The reason? Yvonne would’ve had to pay large inheritance taxes when the family’s finances were already stretched thin. The researchers brought up some interesting arguments, but there’s currently no definitive evidence of the switch. There are also some good reasons to believe it’s not true, but we really can’t say for sure either way.

Sarah Knauss

119 years, 97 days

If the theory above turns out to be true, that would make Sarah Knauss the actual oldest person in recorded history. Either way, she’s definitely the oldest American of all time, born during the Rutherford B. Hayes administration in 1880 and surviving until 1999 – nearly the end of Clinton’s second term. Knauss lived to see 23 different presidents, and in April of 1998, she became the oldest living person on earth.

When Knauss was born, the world’s tallest skyscraper (excluding cathedrals and their spires) was the 52-foot-tall Ditherington Flax Mill in Shrewsbury, England. Seriously, 52 feet. She predated bicycles, ballpoint pens, cars, and the Eiffel Tower, but missed seeing the year 2000 by just 32 hours. Her advice for living as long as she did? Keep yourself busy, work hard, and don’t worry about your age.

Nabi Tajima

117 years, 260 days

Nabi Tajima was born on August 4, 1900, and lived until April of 2018. At the time of her death, she held the distinction of world’s oldest living person, and was also the last living person born in the 19th century. Amazingly, Tajima’s life spanned parts of three different centuries, including the 19th, 20th, and 21st.

Tajima credits eating delicious things and sleeping well. Her Japanese diet probably did help: just 1.7% of the world lives in Japan, but 50% of the people older than 110. She has quite the legacy too, leaving behind nine children and a total of 160 descendants. She even lived long enough to see the birth of her great-great-great-grandchildren.

Lucy Hannah

117 years, 248 days

Lucy Hannah is the oldest African American in history. Born in 1875 in Reconstruction Era Alabama just 10 years after the Civil War, Hannah lived all the way to 1993. Lucy left Alabama behind to seek a better life in Detroit, Michigan, where she spent the rest of her life. She married and had eight children, but tragically, only two survived her.

Like Jeanne Calment, there have been recent reports that cast doubt on her birthdate, with some claiming she was born in 1895. Given the time and circumstances of her birth, it’s hard to verify. Regardless of the birth date, the changes she witnessed in her lifetime are hard to comprehend.

Marie-Louise Febronie Meilleur

117 years, 230 days

At 117 years and 230 days, Marie-Louise Meilleur is the oldest Canadian in history, and at the time of her death, was the world’s oldest living person. Born in 1880, Marie-Louise predated cash registers, the gramophone, and Coca-Cola, and was 15 years old when the motion picture projector was first demonstrated. She was 89 years old when humans first landed on the moon, but still lived to see the invention of the internet.


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