'Twas the Night Before Christmas

The title of this blog is the opening of A Visit from St. Nicholas, a famous poem of disputed authorship.  One of the possible authors was Henry Livingston Jr, who had a habit of signing his other poems with a simple "R"A Visit From St. Nicholas was submitted anonymously, making it hard to determine who really wrote it.

And just what, you might wonder, does any of this have to do with mortality and longevity?  Well, Livingston had twelve children, two of whom had the same name: Henry Welles Livingston.  The first died in infancy, while the second was born the following year and named for his deceased older brother, a practice known as a necronym.

As it happened, the second Henry Welles Livingston died in his thirties, but what if he had lived to be older?  If he had wished, he could probably have passed himself off as his older brother, merging his brother's birth certificate with his own life documentation.  Alternatively, such a conflation of life histories could happen by innocent clerical mistake.

The age difference between the two Henry Welles Livingstons was only a couple of years, but it could have been much larger.  This raises a question: might error and fraud be the twin pillars of supercentenarian age records?  This is the iconoclastic thesis of Newman (2020), who recounts numerous examples of how pockets of centenarians (so-called Blue Zones) might not be what they seem. Newman is not alone in questioning data validity — Valery Novoselov highlighted similar issues, including even casting doubt on Jeanne Calment's record age of 122 years.  Amateur sleuths might like to consult Zak & Gibbs (2020), where Figure 2 shows a change in Mme Calment's signature on official documents after 1927.

A name or signature on A Visit From St. Nicholas would have helped determine the real author.  However, his or her identity is not of major scientific significance.  The same cannot be said about the identity of Mme Calment — her claimed lifespan is such an outlier that it distorts many models of mortality of the "oldest old".  As Sagan (1997) (and many others) point out, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Fortunately, supercentenarian mortality is not a major concern for actuaries, although they do need to be fully aware of any limitations of the data on which they rely.  And, regardless of who really wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas, we can concur with the final line:

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

References

Newman, S. J. (2020) Supercentenarian and remarkable age records exhibit patterns indicative of clerical error and pension fraud, bioRxiv preprint, doi 10.1101/704080.

Sagan, C. (1997) The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark, Headline, ISBN 0-7472-5156-8.

Zak, N. and Gibbs, P. (2020) A Bayesian Assessment of the Longevity of Jeanne Calment, Rejuvenation Research, Vol. 23, No. 1, doi 10.1089/rej.2019.2227.

 

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Stephen Richards
Stephen Richards is the Managing Director of Longevitas