DUBNER: I could imagine you as, like, a fifth-grade math teacher. “What an amazing guess, Stephen!
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: What do the world’s oldest living people have in common?
DUCKWORTH: I have no idea who Methuselah was. I can barely pronounce it.
* * *
DUBNER: Angela, I was recently reading about a research project called the SuperAgers Family Study. I’ll be honest with you, the reason I clicked on this article from the Boston Globe was because I liked the name, “SuperAgers.”
DUCKWORTH: I know. Good branding. Not just, like, “old people” or “old-old people” — you know that’s the technical term? I think it’s called “old-old age.”
DUBNER: I think there’s a lot of words that are coming into the, uh — I almost called it the “gastroenterology space.” I think it’s called the “gerontology space.” Although, there is some correlation, I’m guessing.
DUCKWORTH: Gastroenterology and gerontology? I’m sure.
DUBNER: Anyway, there is this research project by what looks to be the primary investigator in this realm. His name is Thomas Perls. He’s a professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston University. And this study’s looking at people who live into their 90s and beyond. And what the study’s trying to do, according to this Boston Globe piece, is to, quote, “pinpoint the right genes” that contribute to this super longevity in the hopes of, quote, “developing drugs that mimic those genes and allow more people to enjoy longer, healthier lives.” So, we can talk a lot about our eternal search for youth or longevity, but what I want to know from you today is how you feel, personally, about getting really old. And my question is really: if and when there is a study for a new drug to prolong life, will you be first on line in that study?
DUCKWORTH: You know, I don’t want to live forever.
DUBNER: Good news, you won’t. Hate to spoil the end.
DUCKWORTH: That wasn’t on the multiple-choice list — at least it’s not right now. Some people think it’s possible, by the way, which is very interesting. I don’t even know that I want to live until I’m, you know — what’s the longest that anyone’s lived? I think it’s 126 years? Something like that.
DUBNER: I think the world’s oldest recorded— and it starts to get tricky, because there’s a lot of fraud, apparently, in claims of old age. The oldest human whose age was documented, was a French woman named Jeanne Louise Calment who lived to 122. She died 1997. So, you’ve got a ways to go. We have time to sort this all out, in other words. But anyway, you were saying you don’t want to live to be super old, because why?
DUCKWORTH: I am saying that, because I’m having this mental image of what it’s like to be a diminished version of myself. I’m thinking mentally. I’m also thinking physically, like, you know, not being able to do what I’m able to do now — like, walk over to a recording studio or make myself a cup of coffee. And I think there is something of a renewed fascination with the possibility of a fountain of youth, particularly among the elite and wealthy. I don’t know if I think it’s a bad thing for them, but I don’t personally feel like I want to live past a hundred necessarily —.
DUBNER: Ah, well, okay. If you’re saying you don’t know about past a hundred, you’re already fairly ambitious about your longevity.
DUCKWORTH: That’s true. The thing that I care about is what, actually, some of the people who study aging say is more, like, “health expectancy,” not life expectancy.
DUBNER: So, that makes perfect sense. And I empathize with you. I can see how it starts to feel like life-extension porn — that it’s this, you know, “Wait a minute. You mean that you, individual human being, are going to upset the entirety of biology, and history, and civilization?” That said, let me just push back gently. No. 1: given the caveats that you just stated about, “Well, I don’t want to be really old if I’m very diminished,” noted, of course. I think most people would agree or empathize with that. On the other hand, a lot of this research is about living long and living well. The whole point is that it shouldn’t necessarily be a kind of even trade off. And so, I think that’s part of what we’re looking at here is this co-mingling of the “tech bro life-expectancy porn movement” with, “Hey, our science on the genetic level is getting better and better by the day. And wouldn’t it be great to study very old people, and then their offspring, and their offspring, and compare them to other people, other families, that don’t live as long to see if we can A) identify the right genes and then see what we can do to maybe mimic those genes, whatever.” And that’s what I love about this SuperAgers family study.
DUCKWORTH: Like, if we understand what those genes do, we can figure out how to feed our body the proteins that those genes synthesize —.
DUBNER: Exactly. So, does that change, perhaps a little bit, your answer to the question? In other words, what would be the downside for you, personally, Angela Lee Duckworth, of living to, let’s say, 120, if you feel your cognitive and physical states were not significantly diminished.
DUCKWORTH: I would change my answer, Stephen. Then, I, I think I probably wouldn’t be thinking about some of the potential downsides to society to having a, like, semi-immortal Angela around. I’d selfishly be thinking like, “Yes, I’d love that.” So, one of my cousins, Richard Lee, is a professor at Harvard, and he is one of the scientists that’s really, like, at the center of all this stuff.
DUBNER: Wait a minute. I know the name Richard Lee. Richard Lee is your cousin?
DUCKWORTH: Richard Lee is my cousin.
DUBNER: What are the odds?
DUCKWORTH: Lee is my maiden name.
DUBNER: So, wait, Richard Lee, I know. This is a guy, I think, unless I may be totally wrong —.
DUCKWORTH: You saw The New York Times article, I think, right? There was a big Times article recently.
DUBNER: I don’t know. But I do know about this company. I want to say it’s called Elevian?
DUCKWORTH: Yes. That is his startup.
DUBNER: So, tell us about that. And him.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Well, I will say, I probably know enough to be dangerous. He’s a cardiologist, M.D., by training, and so this work is very specifically about blood vessels and the heart. So, I don’t think that this Elevian startup is in the category of what you were just describing, which is like, “Let’s just identify the genes.” Because as he explained it to me, there’s kind of, like, two general approaches to this work of extending the lifespan. One category would be what you described, like, “Hey, let’s just try to figure out what the mechanism of aging in general is, and let’s figure out if we can fix or interrupt those processes.” There’s another category, and that’s what Richard falls into, which is, like, “Let’s understand the specific diseases that afflict the old and very old, like heart disease, like Alzheimer’s, like Parkinson’s, and then let’s attack those specific diseases.”
DUBNER: And from what I’ve read, right now, they are addressing strokes, which is, you know, one of the leading causes of, of death.
DUCKWORTH: And certainly afflicts the old and very old more than the young. But anyway, I was talking to Richard about his work and about this fascinating new field. And his work in particular focuses on this protein that stimulates the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and elsewhere. And the exciting possibility here is that if there is a chemical protein that can get an old body, an old brain, an old heart, an old circulatory system, to act like a new one, then your mind does start going towards fantasies of the fountain of youth.
DUBNER: So, this research process that he and others are involved in is called “parabiosis,” and this is all with mice so far as I can tell. But then, there are these other researchers, there’s a guy at Stanford — neurology and neuroscience professor Tony Wyss-Coray and his research team — they’ve done parabiosis, which is this process where the circulatory system — in this case of an old mouse and a young mouse — are connected. And they found that it not only counteracted, but reversed brain aging at the molecular, structural, functional, and cognitive levels. So, totally swapping out old mouse for young mouse.
DUCKWORTH: Don’t they, like, hook them up, like, to each other?
DUBNER: It’s like — did you ever get a husband and wife mani-pedi?
DUCKWORTH: I have not gotten a husband and wife mani-pedi. Not yet.
DUBNER: If you do, you sit in two chairs, you kick back, you put the footrest up. It’s probably kind of like that — old mouse, young mouse. They sit them in nice, comfortable little mouse recliners.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe it’s like, if you can have a mental image of that and going to your local Red Cross and donating blood? If you put those things together.
DUBNER: This, of course, reminds me of Keith Richards swapping out his heroin-drenched blood for non-heroin-drenched blood back in —.
DUCKWORTH: Did he do that?
DUBNER: You know, “Did he do that?” is a very interesting question. I don’t mean to take us on a long tangent here, but Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who’s still alive, shockingly.
DUCKWORTH: No way. Seriously?
DUBNER: He’s extremely alive, despite an inordinate amount of foreign substances that have gone in his body. Anyway, there were these stories that in order to either detox from heroin or to escape some kind of penalty, or arrest, or whatever — that he would have his blood swapped in some Swiss clinic. He later said that he made up that story, but other people who were around him and with him said he did not make up that story and that Keith Richards was so high for so many years that he would have no idea whether he made up that story or not.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Well, if he had even the idea of that, right, whether or not he did it —.
DUBNER: Then he could have been a Harvard researcher, you’re saying.
DUCKWORTH: I know! I was going to say maybe he, in addition to his other accolades, deserves the Nobel Prize. I mean, it’s like — I think The New York Times said it’s kind of “Frankensteinian.” I think they really mean “vampire,” right? So, just to squeeze in a little Twilight here, I mean that is kind of what happens when Edward Cullen bites your neck. His vampire blood goes into you, and then you become immortal. So, actually, it’s not that far a leap to think about, like, how this idea has been around for a long, long time, right? Far before Stanford and Harvard biologists got into it.
DUBNER: You know, that is a great argument for why we should pay more attention to the arts.
DUCKWORTH: To Twilight?
DUBNER: Well, to literature generally.
DUCKWORTH: How about the arts in general, and Twilight in particular.
DUBNER: Sure. You can have that. Because, if you think about it, I mean, there are many people now who spend a lot of their days arguing that a lot of the science fiction of the last a hundred years was really predictive. I mean, a lot of it was bonkers wrong. Anyway, let me go back to the SuperAgers Family Study. Here’s a couple interesting things I wanted to mention. No. 1 is: the study has found that among centenarians — people, a hundred or older —that disability is typically compressed towards, at least, their early to mid-nineties and the genetic influence upon survival increases with older and older ages. In other words, if you get to 80 or 90, and if you have really good genes, then you’re probably going to keep going. And it says that many people who exercise regularly, eat healthy diets, and refrain from smoking will make it to 90. Okay, I’m going to repeat that. “Many people who do those things will make it to 90,” but beyond that is when researchers believe genetics play a larger role. That surprised me.
DUCKWORTH: It surprises me, honestly. Because when you say, “Oh, at this point it’s really about genetics and not about lifestyle,” to me, the reason why I always bristle at statements like that is that’s suggesting that they’re not related. Like, actually, it turns out that people who don’t smoke, who have a regular exercise routine, who eat leafy green vegetables and refrain from eating too much junk food, there are actually genetic and environmental influences for that. So, it’s not this “either it’s lifestyle or it’s genes,” because everything that is lifestyle is partly genes.
DUBNER: In other words, you’re making the argument that things like smoking, nutrition, et cetera, have environmental and genetic bases.
DUCKWORTH: Right. So, the both/and of nature-nurture, the both/and of genes and environment, I think are just always the case. And I can’t see how it wouldn’t be also the case at the end of life, by the way.
DUBNER: In light of that, I’d love to hear from our listeners about the oldest person you know and what you admire about them — or what you even notice about them. I would love to hear that. Put it in a voice memo on your phone. Record in a quiet place and send it to us at email@example.com.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Angela shares some of the changes that she’s made in order to live a longer, healthier life.
DUBNER: Sounds a little creepy, I’ll be honest with you. Yeah. I don’t think you should spread that one around.
* * *
Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about super-agers.
DUBNER: Did you know that people over age 90 are the fastest-growing segment of the population in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world?
DUCKWORTH: I did not know that. But that’s probably relatively speaking, right? Because there’s such a small number of them.
DUBNER: Yeah. I think that’s one of those kind of tricky, sneaky statistics.
DUCKWORTH: I used to visit Tim Beck, the pioneer of cognitive psychology, and I remember when he turned a hundred and he was very, um, proud. I mean, he did like to note that he was, like, really far out in the right tail of the distribution on age. As you’ve probably noticed, I have kind of a fondness of scientists who are in their 80s and 90s.
DUBNER: Yeah, you love the old scientists.
DUCKWORTH: Well, they’re, like, the greats, you know?
DUBNER: It’s like going to see Cicero or Methuselah. Methuselah, by the way — that always bothered me. You remember how old Methuselah was supposed to be?
DUCKWORTH: I have no idea who Methuselah was. I can barely pronounce it.
DUBNER: From the Bible. He was supposed to be 969, at which point you say, I don’t think they knew what a year was. Moses was supposed to be 120! And furthermore, according to the Bible, “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.” Sounds like cardiac arrest. He just keeled over at 120.
DUCKWORTH: I read the beginning of the Old Testament when I was in church on Christmas Eve, because that’s what I do when I am in church. I don’t really get into the rituals, but, like, there’s this great book here, so I’ll read it. And, um, if you read the openings — like after God created the world in seven days, and then Adam and Eve — all of those early characters — they all lived hundreds and hundreds of years.
DUBNER: They measured time differently, let’s say.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe it felt like hundreds of years, because it was so hard.
DUBNER: You know, Herodotus, who was born in, I think, the fifth century B.C., he wrote about this group called the Macrobians, who were this tribal kingdom in the Horn of Africa that supposedly lived to Moses age — like, 120 years old. They drank milk and they ate boiled flesh. That’s what I know about them.
DUCKWORTH: Oh. No green, leafy vegetables. Okay. Look, assuming that that’s not the recipe for living a very long, but, you know, a very healthy life, what do 85, 95-year-olds do that seem to be ticking along, like, amazingly youthfully? There are a lot of common-sense things. Like, we already mentioned having a healthy diet, not smoking, getting exercise. I don’t think those things are surprises to anyone, but there’s actually something in the psychological research that may be slightly surprising.
DUBNER: Based on the onslaught of press I’ve seen lately about research on happiness, I am going to say it has something to do with, uh, human connection — having some friends and family that you not only think well of, but you participate with, and maybe even do stuff for them. That would be my guess.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, so I had a two-part answer. So, you did get half of it right.
DUBNER: Can I guess the other one? Would it be a lot of hot chili flakes?
DUCKWORTH: It would not be a lot of hot chili flakes, but what an amazing guess, Stephen.
DUBNER: All of a sudden I could imagine you as, like, a fifth-grade math teacher. “What an amazing guess, Stephen. That was the worst guess possible, and yet, I’m going to call it amazing, dammit.”
DUCKWORTH: “Stephen, I’m glad you’re thinking so hard about that! But first, let me say what I had in mind.” Okay. So, No. 2 is cognitive activity. And let me unpack that. Let’s think about muscles. We know for sure that they are “use it or lose it.” And anybody who’s ever had their arm in a cast will know that like, wow, almost immediately you start to decondition. Last month, Jason had a cough, and he couldn’t exercise for, like, 10 days. And he said to me, “Oh my gosh, I have, like, literally deconditioned.” His body is adjusting to the new normal. It’s like, “Oh, you don’t need me to be strong? I will now not produce muscle tissue, et cetera.”
DUBNER: So, did you have to, like, pour the milk in his coffee and everything?
DUCKWORTH: I didn’t have to, like, raise the spoon to his mouth for his cereal, but I’ve had the same experience myself, you’re like, “Holy smokes, the human body is exquisitely adaptive to your immediate circumstances.” So, therefore, if you want your brain to be a strong fast organ, you need to use it. So, what the research suggests is that the variety of things that you do actually matters. It’s not that book clubs are necessarily better than doing the crossword, reading the newspaper, engaging in intellectual conversation with people like Stephen Dubner, but there is some argument being made that the variety of cognitive activity that you have is especially valuable as we get older.
DUBNER: And novelty, I would think, would have some extra-premium value, perhaps?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. You know, seeking out novelty, being sensitive to novelty, privileging novelty over the routine.
DUBNER: But, just as a reminder, No. 1 is relationships. Correct?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. No. 1 is personal relationships. There is this longitudinal study. I think it’s one of the longest longitudinal studies in history. This study was with Harvard undergraduates, and they were tracked for their entire lives. So, think of a 19-year-old followed all the way through to death. And the Harvard Study of Adult Development, as it’s called, has of course had to be passed on like a baton from one scientist to another. And the scientists who now hold that baton are named Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz. But basically they wrote a book, and it’s called The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. And if there’s one very simple sentence to summarize all of this research — which, of course, spans decades and decades — it is that relationships are the key to aging well, to staying physically healthy, to staying mentally healthy, and of course, as it says in the title, to being happy.
DUBNER: So, question: can a relationship include, let’s say, my online sports-betting app?
DUCKWORTH: You know, the research took place over the course of a century that did not have, for the most part —.
DUBNER: How did those people get to be so old without being able to live bet on N.F.L. games?
DUCKWORTH: Well, you could argue that these sort of old-fashioned conclusions come from research done in an old-fashioned era, but I think there’s good reason to believe that real relationships, where the interactions are happening in three dimensions — like, it’s not in the metaverse. I don’t think we’re ever gonna come to a point and say, “Hey, did you know that it could be all mediated through technology?” Like, it has to be, I think, in person. I mean, people evolved over millennia to live, actually, in very close quarters. It’s a very, very recent development that we’re alone so much.
DUBNER: Yeah, but, you know, we were dying from cholera and dysentery all along the way, too. So, I’m not so sure —.
DUCKWORTH: Do you think the opposite though? That like —.
DUBNER: No. No. No. I don’t think the opposite. I’m all for the idea that relationships can strengthen and extend our lives, but I think for the benefit — especially if someone who doesn’t live where they can get together physically with people all the time — we should appreciate the ways in which virtual or digital connections can be made real, because I think that’s a real benefit.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Let me give you one practical suggestion for my own personal life, which you can discard immediately, if you choose. When I was in college, in particular, I did not do what these researchers are suggesting you do, which is: in your day, it should be a priority to spend some time interacting with people that you care about. I was just, like, a little machine. I think that I wasn’t intentionally neglecting my relationships, but at any given moment I was prioritizing something else, and it was getting crowded out. It’s like, “Oh, I have to go recycle this for that committee, and I’ve got to study for my organic chemistry exam, and I have to go for my run.”
DUBNER: Would you group all those under the umbrella of ambition?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I think I was letting achievement basically take up my entire field of view. So, it wasn’t that I didn’t care about relationships, but you know, that’s what it means to have values — that you have this rank ordering.
DUBNER: And do you regret that to some degree, or no?
DUCKWORTH: I do. And so, like, now understanding this research, but also personally having regrets about how I spent some of my early adulthood, I have two routines that I think are useful, and I don’t think there’s any scientists who would argue with the basic fact that if you want to live a healthy life into your 80s and 90s, perhaps beyond, then try to put some of these things on autopilot. Whatever you think you should do, you should make a ritual and a habit out of. One is: I have bundled my three-times-a-week running with phone calls to three different girlfriends, none of which live near us. What are you laughing?! What?!
DUBNER: I thought you were going to say you go running with friends. What you’re saying is you want — you want be so efficient that you’re going to call someone and talk to them while you’re going, “So — so I was really— I was really thinking about how great it is to talk to you today.”
DUCKWORTH: Okay. I don’t run fast enough to lose my breath, that’s one key to the system. But yes, Stephen. And, and by the way, I would run with these girlfriends in person, they just happen not to live in Philadelphia.
DUBNER: But wait! You’re saying you’re using technology.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly! This is a concession to the Dubner point that technology can be good. I’m not saying it’s better than being in person, but sure as heck better than nothing at all. And because of that, I have to say that those three girlfriends are my three closest girlfriends.
DUBNER: I actually do the same thing I will do it when I’m driving. And I have this little trick, which is that, when I have a long drive especially, I will look for visual cues, just take them in, and wait for them to remind me of a certain person in my life that I’m fond of. So, for instance, the other day I was driving from Manhattan up into Westchester. Not a long drive. And if it’s a drive I hadn’t done a thousand times, I would’ve wanted to pay more attention, because the roads here can be a little challenging. This was also on a Sunday morning. There was almost no traffic. And I’m driving up the West Side Highway along the Hudson River, and when I see the Hudson River, I think, oh, my friend Adam, who loves the Hudson in a very deep way, and in fact built his own boat over the last couple years in order to spend time on the Hudson. So, I used that cue in that moment to call my friend Adam. Other times I’ll notice some sign, or store, or piece of nature that will make me think of some relative or friend, and I’ll do that. So, I hate to sound like a softie who actually likes other people. But I do a version of what you do.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, interesting. I hope one day I get one of these, like, road landmarks.
DUBNER: With you, I do text you. I texted you like a picture of — was it a garbage can from London that said “grit” on it or something?
DUCKWORTH: You did. I think, by the way, that’s the salt that they put on the road.
DUBNER: There you go.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, so we could summarize this tip as: if you want to grow old, and healthy, and happy, you might either, as a matter of coordinated routine, connect with friends and family, or as an opportunistic routine — like, when I happen to drive by this, or when I happen to see this sort of thing that we always joke about.
DUBNER: But really two varieties of apple, let’s say.
DUCKWORTH: Fuji and Honeycrisp. But anywhos, the other thing that I do — and that I didn’t do when I was younger, but am really happy that I do now — is I really try to see my close friends in person at least once a year. Most of these people have children, and, I, I call it, like, “laying eyes on their children.” I don’t even know if that’s a proper expression.
DUBNER: Sounds a little creepy, I’ll be honest with you. Yeah. I don’t think you should spread that one around.
DUCKWORTH: Like, “lay eyes,” somehow it seems illegal. But look, I want to see my friends’ kids once a year.
DUBNER: You said that you regret, to some degree, how ambition in your youth kept you from —. Right. But let me pose a slight counterfactual. Had you not been so ambitious, you would not have accomplished what you have to get you to a station in life where you are able now to have the resources — time, and money, and social status, et cetera — to make room for these people in your life. So, how do you think about that?
DUCKWORTH: So, look, I think if you sort of squint at, like, all the social science on this, I think you would make the prediction that actually I might have been more successful, because I would’ve been happier. Like, forestalls burnout, increases creativity. You know, there are only a few things that I think scientists can point to where they’re like, “Yep. Pretty much all upside.” Like, green leafy vegetables — I guess in theory you could have too much, but, eh, pretty much good. I would say the same thing for high-quality relationships.
DUBNER: You know, in terms of this study we started talking about today, I have to say, I’m just really glad to see more research being done about aging and geriatric science. I would say this also, if the attraction of getting older is not as attractive to you as it might be to others — maybe you think about: I don’t want to be diminished; I don’t want to be infirm; I don’t want to be reliant on other people; I don’t want to outlive my friends, and maybe even my family, and so on — I will offer, from the realm of economics, one interesting incentive based on research that the economist Gary Becker did years and years and years ago, which found that people who have bought annuities, which are financial instruments that pay out a set amount for as long as you live, that they lived longer. And this was controlling for the fact that people who buy annuities tend to have higher income. Controlling for that fact, if you want to live longer, you should probably buy a bunch of annuities. And if that doesn’t work, I am reminded of one more story I’ve heard. I have no idea how true this is. The woman we mentioned earlier, the oldest human whose age was documented — Jeanne Louise Calment, a French woman who lived to 122, apparently — died in 1997. From what I’ve read, she had some rental agreement, or maybe even a sales agreement, where she was living in this house, or apartment, or something, and she made a deal that the owner, or the landlord, whatever — someone would take control of it when she died. And she just kept living, and kept living, and kept living, and she was living in, apparently, a very nice place for a very low price. And ultimately the landlord died!
DUCKWORTH: The power of incentives. I love it! And honestly, there is some reasonably rigorous research suggesting that people can live to see certain things — like, you know, stretch out their life to see a wedding, for example, or the birth of a child. However, this interesting finding that people who buy long-term, or, I guess, lifelong annuities live a little longer, there’s always going to be the possibility, no matter what you statistically control for, that there’s an unmeasured confound. There’s something about the sort of person who buys that kind of investment product that is also correlated with, like, their lifestyle and other choices.
DUBNER: Fair enough. Although, they would argue that they controlled as much as they could control for those type of factors. But you’re right, you can’t control for everything. I will say this: if you don’t believe in annuities, can I interest you in species conversion? If you become a Seychelles giant tortoise — for instance, a Seychelles giant tortoise named Jonathan is apparently, as of this recording, the oldest-living land animal.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, now I want to guess. Is it like — how old is this tor —. It’s the longest living land animal?
DUBNER: That we know about, that’s been recorded, that I may be recalling wrong. Let’s put all those caveats on it.
DUCKWORTH: All right, all right, all right. But I’m still going to be impressed. I was going to say like 185.
DUBNER: Oh my — did you really guess that?
DUCKWORTH: Yes. I really guessed that.
DUBNER: Unbelievable. 190.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, really?
DUBNER: I think you might be Jonathan’s secret sister, because that’s inside family information.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, seriously? Is it 190? Do I get something for that? Is there a jar of jellybeans?
DUBNER: You know what you get? The next time Jonathan poops, which will probably be about five years from now — he probably moves very slow, doesn’t really process a lot — I’m going to let you clean it up and take that poop as a, um, memento and put it in a little — what do they call those little things that you display something in?
DUCKWORTH: When Catholics have, like, a relic?
DUBNER: Oh, a reliquary, nice. Yeah. Beautiful.
DUCKWORTH: All right. Thank you.
DUBNER: You’re welcome.
DUCKWORTH: Did I really guess it? I’m so proud of myself.
DUBNER: That was so good.
No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.
When discussing the SuperAgers Family Study, Stephen describes Thomas Perls as, quote, “the primary investigator in this realm.” Perls does work on the project, and he’s the founder and director of the New England Centenarian Study, but the lead investigator on the SuperAgers study is Sofiya Milman, an associate professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Then, Angela references the 85-year-old longitudinal Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School and says that it focused on the outcome of the lives of Harvard students. She’s right that the initial study included 268 Harvard undergraduates, but it also followed, quote, “456 severely disadvantaged boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods.”
Finally, Stephen tells the story of the world’s oldest person ever verified, France’s Jeanne Louise Calment. He says that Calment had an agreement that her landlord would take over her apartment after she died, but she ended up outliving him. The details of the story are even more ironic than Stephen suggests. In 1965, 47-year-old André-François Raffray — who was Calment’s lawyer, not her landlord — signed an agreement to purchase then 90-year-old Calment’s apartment in exchange for a monthly payment of around $500 until her death. Raffray died in 1995, two years before Calment, having paid her nearly $200,000 for an apartment he never had the chance to live in. When asked about the agreement, Calment reportedly said, “In life, one often makes bad deals.”
That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts on our recent episode on air travel:
Frank TURK: Hi, Stephen and Angie. My name is Frank. And I have a story about people on an airplane doing something Angie was asking about in episode 133. On my flight, among the various travelers, were two groups that stood out: a group of young men who were obviously soldiers and a group of women who seemed to be a sorority or some sort of college club. As it turned out, one of the senior soldiers and one of the college women wound up sitting next to each other someplace behind me in the plane. The flight proceeded as planned. And about six or seven hours in, just before the last meal service, I noticed that the young woman who had been sitting next to the soldier entered the lav, which I could see from my seat. Then, about 90 seconds later, the soldier who was sitting next to her also entered the lav. Three flight attendants came up to the lav door. The door opened and the young woman came out. One attendant took her back to her seat and the other two attendants took the young man forward to the other senior officer and the lead attendant for the flight crew. I could see them taking his ID, and lots of stern looks were traded. And when we got off the plane, they were met by uniformed military. So, to answer Angie’s question, I think that this sort of thing is not accepted by the major airlines and also not by the U.S. military. I hope that satisfies your curiosity, and I hope you both don’t spend all your time in the airport working. There’s a lot of great people watching to do.
That was listener Frank Turk. Thanks so much to him and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear about something you admire about the oldest person in your life. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name and whether you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Why do we celebrate birthdays?
DUBNER: Hey, everybody, world, I’m still here! Get me presents!
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Katherine Moncure is our associate producer. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: I remember reading these stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder. When it came time for Christmas, she would hope and pray that she might get an orange in her stocking. And I was like, an orange? That’s, like, maybe one notch above a lump of coal.
DUBNER: She was 90 when she died. Here’s a way to draw the wrong lesson from this story: never eat more than one orange a year.
- Aaron Beck, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of cognitive behavior therapy.
- Richard Lee, professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard University.
- Sofiya Milman, professor of endocrinology and genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
- Thomas Perls, professor of medicine at Boston University.
- Marc Schulz, professor of psychology and data science at Bryn Mawr College.
- Robert Waldinger, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
- Tony Weiss-Coray, professor of neurology and neurological science at Stanford University.
- “Can a ‘Magic’ Protein Slow the Aging Process?” by Eilene Zimmerman (The New York Times, 2022).
- “The Secret to Longer, Healthier Life? Ambitious New Trial Focuses on ‘Super Agers’ and Seeks Thousands of Families,” by Kay Lazar (The Boston Globe, 2022).
- “Oldest Land Animal (Living),” by Guinness World Records (2022).
- The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, by Marc Schulz and Robert J. Waldinger (2022).
- “What Have We Learned From Cognition in the Oldest-Old,” by Claudia H. Kawas, Nienkeb Legdeur, and María M. Corrada (Current Opinion on Neurology, 2021).
- Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, by Tom Vanderbilt (2021).
- “Was Jeanne Calment the Oldest Person Who Ever Lived—or a Fraud?” by Lauren Collins (The New Yorker, 2020).
- “Young Blood Reverses Age-Related Impairments in Cognitive Function and Synaptic Plasticity in Mice,” by Saul A Villeda, Kristopher E Plambeck, Jinte Middeldorp, Joseph M Castellano, Kira I Mosher, Jian Luo, Lucas K Smith, Gregor Bieri, Karin Lin, Daniela Berdnik, et al. (Nature Medicine, 2014).
- “Growth Differentiation Factor 11 Is a Circulating Factor that Reverses Age-Related Cardiac Hypertrophy,” by Francesco S. Loffredo, Matthew L. Steinhauser, Steven M. Jay, Thomas Serwold, Amy J. Wagers, Richard T. Lee, et al. (Cell, 2013).
- The Twilight Saga, by Stephanie Meyer (2005-2008).
- Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life From the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, by George Eman Vaillant (2002).
- “Keith Richards Blood Transfusion,” by David Mikkelson (Snopes, 2000).
- SuperAgers Family Study.
- Harvard Study of Adult Development.