When we heard the sad news late Tuesday that the world's oldest person, Maria Gomes Valentim of Brazil (pictured above), had died of multiple organ failure only a couple weeks before her 115th birthday, we wondered, "Didn't we just cover the world's oldest person dying?" In fact, we hadn't--it was the world's oldest man. But the question got us thinking. One reasonably can't expect the second-oldest person in the world at any given moment to live much longer than the oldest. So, how often is the oldest person in the world dying, and the media covering it?
For an answer, we turned to Ron Gebhardtsbauer, an actuary who teaches at Penn State's Smeal College of Business, who pointed us to Social Security's "life tables" for people living in the U.S. According to Social Security's actuaries, the probability of a male or female around age 114 dying over the course of the next year is around 77 percent and the life expectancy for that person is about 0.78 years (most "oldest people" are 114, some 115). "The important point is that a person age 114 may live on average about three-fourths of a year or approximately nine months," Gebhardtsbauer told us. "If I knew who the person was, and knew their doctor, I could give you a better estimate, but since I don't know the person, I have to use averages." While we don't know the newest oldest person in the world's doctor, we do know her name: Besse Cooper of Georgia, who is 114 years and 300 days old today and was previously considered the oldest person in the world before Guinness World Records verified Valentim last month. Cooper's son says his mother's health is pretty good. "She's gained some weight, she's eating real good," he told the AP. "Her memory is still really good."
Gebhardtsbauer emphasizes that estimating how frequently the oldest person in the world dies is a "very inexact science," since "there are so few people at these ages to assess the probabilities" (in fact, according to the Gerontology Research Group, there are only six verified 114-year-olds in the world). A quick analysis of the ten most recent oldest people in the world (not including Cooper) reveals that they've died, on average, 176 days, or around six months, apart from one another (that number might get closer to Gebhardtsbauer's nine months if we were to go further back in history). But, of course, the deaths haven't come in predictable intervals. Edna Parker of Indiana, for example, was the world's oldest person for almost a year and a half before she passed away in 2008, while Emma Tillman of Connecticut held the title for a mere four days in 2007. When Tillman passed the torch to Yone Minagawa of Japan, The New York Times wrote, "though it is perhaps impolite to mention, recent history suggests that Ms. Minagawa may not hold the crown for long. In the last month alone, the title of oldest person has changed hands three times." The Gerontology Research Group's Dr. L. Stephen Coles was amazed by the statistical anomaly he was witnessing. "The Guinness Book of World Records will not be able to keep up," he told The Times. "Usually we've had a more stable No. 1 position." What was Coles' estimate back in 2007 for how long people typically held the "oldest person" title? Eight months. Turns out Social Security's not so far off.