Editor’s note, April 25, 2022: Kane Tanaka, the world’s oldest person, died on April 18 at the age of 119. According to a statement According to Guinness World Records, Tanaka – both the oldest person and the oldest woman in the world – had been “hospitalized and discharged several times” in recent weeks, but remained in good spirits.
Guinness has yet to name the new world record holder, but experts previously identified Lucile Randon, a French nun also known as Sister André, as the world’s second oldest person. She turned 118 in February.
Learn more about Tanaka’s record-breaking life, as explored by Smithsonian on his 117th birthday, below.
On Sunday, Kane Tanaka celebrated his birthday with a party at a retirement home in Fukuoka, Japan. Dressed in a golden kimono with a cluster of purple flowers hidden behind her ear, she enjoyed a large birthday cake.
“Tasty,” she said after the first bite, as quoted by Reuters. “I want more.”
Staff members, friends and a local broadcast team were there to witness the occasion, which marked Tanaka’s 117th birthday. With the achievement of this staggering milestone, Tanaka remains the world’s oldest person – a title she officially claimed last yearwhen Guinness World Records confirmed his supercentenarian status.
Tanaka was born on January 2, 1903. The seventh of eight children, she married Hideo Tanaka shortly after turning 19. The couple had four children and adopted a fifth. When her husband was called up to join the army during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Tanaka played a leading role in the family business, which made and sold sticky rice, udon noodles and zenzaia traditional Japanese sweet.
Since turning 100, holding the record for the world’s oldest person has been Tanaka’s dream, according to Lateshia Beachum of the Washington Post. The moment she was hoping for came in March last year, when Guinness World Records presented her with official certificates at a ceremony at her retirement home. (“I don’t know what it is,” she mentioned when the framed disc was placed in her hands.) Tanaka was also treated to flowers and a box of chocolates, which she immediately opened, announcing her intention to eat 100 of the candies.
A leading authority on supercentenarians, or people over the age of 110, is the Gerontology Research Groupwho not only maintains a standardized database of the world’s oldest people, but also conducts interviews and biological research with the goal of developing drugs that will slow the aging process, Rachel Nuwer reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2014. To make the list, supercentenarian applicants must present at least two documents proving their age, current photo ID and, for women who took their husband’s surname after marriage, proof of the name change.
But monitoring the world’s oldest citizens is not a foolproof process. Fraud can come into play, as may have been the case with Jeanne-Louise Calment, who died aged 122 in 1997 and considered the oldest documented person in history. A recent study postulated that Calment died at the age of 59, leaving her daughter, Yvonne, to assume her identity in an effort to avoid paying inheritance tax. Experts have since disputed that claim.
The quality of record keeping can also influence the number of supercentenarians. Japan, for example, prides itself the oldest population in the worldwith over 71,000 centenarians. The longevity of the country’s population has been attributed to factors such as healthy cooking traditionsbut as Nuwer points out, Japan has also kept meticulous birth records for more than a century.
“[I]Individuals who don’t make the cut are likely true supercentenarians,” she writes of the Gerontology Research Group listing, “but they are unable to provide the documentation to prove it.
Even though there are more supercentenarians than experts can reliably confirm, reaching such an advanced age is an exceptional feat. Only one in 1,000 people who will live to age 100 will see their 110th birthday, according to Voiceis Kelsey Piper.
There are about 150 verified supercentenarians in the world, but as Amy Harmon reports for the New York Times, amateur genealogists estimate the number to be as high as 1,000 if unverified individuals are taken into account. Either way, the band still represents a very small demographic.
Genetic can play a role to help a select few live that long, but scientists have struggled to identify other unifying factors that lead to extreme longevity.
“I’ve interviewed more supercentenarians than anyone else, trying to find out what they have in common,” the late L. Stephen Coles, co-founder of the Gerontology Research Group, told Nuwer in 2014. “The answer is almost nothing.”
As experts struggle to identify the secrets of exceptional age, Tanaka is happy to continue living in her retirement home. She wakes up at 6 a.m. and spends her afternoon studying math. She is a fan of the strategy board game Othello, often beating the house staff.
Last year, when Tanaka received his record as the world’s oldest person, he was asked what was the happiest moment of his long life. His answer was simple: “Now”.