The oldest man on Earth dies aged 113

Winner: Guinness World Records recognised Masazo Nonaka as the world’s oldest man last year.

As people mourn the death of the world’s oldest man, scientists are trying to unlock the secrets of long-life. Some say diet holds the key; others think technology could make us immortal.

When Masazo Nonaka was born in 1905, Queen Victoria had only recently died; Albert Einstein was revolutionising the world of physics; and the Ford Model T car was still years from production.

One hundred and thirteen years later — a time spanning two World Wars, the rise of nuclear power and the digital revolution — he is dead, passing away peacefully last Sunday.

Born in Japan, Nonaka attributed his long life to soaking in hot springs and eating sweets. His daughter pointed to his stress-free life (Nonaka spent his retirement watching sumo wrestling and reading newspapers).

Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world. And there is one place where people live longer than anywhere else: Okinawa Island.

For every 100,000 inhabitants, 68 are over 100 years old ― more than three times the rate in America. Okinawans also have very low rates of illness, including heart disease, cancer and dementia.

Scientists now think there could be one key factor: what they eat. People on the island eat a high ratio of carbohydrates (often in the form of sweet potatoes). Research has shown that low protein, high carbohydrate diets can protect us from various age-related diseases.

That is not all. Okinawa also has a healthy way of life. Its inhabitants tend not to smoke, they exercise regularly and socialise within tight-knit communities.

While all this sounds fairly simple, across the world in Silicon Valley, a cast of entrepreneurs are experimenting with modern life-prolonging technologies.

Blood infusions, concoctions of pills, bioengineering. An entire industry has been established with the aim of extending human life way beyond 100 years. “The proposition that we can live forever is obvious,” claims entrepreneur Arram Sabeti. “It doesn’t violate the laws of physics, so we can achieve it.”

What this means for the rest of us, only time will tell.

As Yuval Noah Harari argues, if life-prolonging technology is only available to the super-rich, it could be the end of civilisation as we know it. “Humankind might consequently split into biological castes,” he writes. “Once a real gap […] opens between the rich and the poor, it will become almost impossible to close.”

Becoming history

So how long would you like to live for? Would 150 years be a good human life? Longer? Shorter? What if many of these later years were lived in a state of disease and immobility. Would it be better to have a shorter, sweeter life? Is it crazy to aim for immortality?

These questions could become more urgent than they first appear. As technology improves, some expect life-preserving treatments to become a reality. But what impact could this have on society? Would it really be good if everyone started living longer lives?

You Decide

  1. Would you want to live forever?
  2. Why are people afraid of death?

Activities

  1. Consider how much the world changed during the 113 years that Masazo Nonaka was alive. Now imagine that you have lived to the age of 113. In what three ways would you have expected the world to change in that time? Write down your ideas and share them with the class.
  2. Read the pieces by Yuval Noah Harari and Jason Pontin by following the links in Become An Expert. They present opposing ideas about the modern mission to extend life, and what it might mean for society. Who do you agree with? Why? What makes their argument more convincing than the other?

Some People Say...

“There is an infinite amount of hope in the universe — but not for us.”

Franz Kafka

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The current limit for the span of a human life is around 115 years. Life expectancy in Britain is 83 for women and 79 for men. Diet is one of many things that impacts life expectancy. Lifestyle choices, environmental factors and genetics all contribute too.
What do we not know?
We do not know how far a human life can be extended beyond this 115-year mark. However, scientists have had some success in artificially prolonging the lives of some animals. American researchers demonstrated that a mutation in a single gene could allow a roundworm to live twice as long as usual. Mice have also been genetically engineered to have longer lives.

Word Watch

Revolutionising
1905 was an extraordinary year for Einstein, in which he presented four papers which laid the foundations for modern physics.
Model T
A mass-produced car which was cheap enough to appeal to many people. It revolutionised the car industry.
Life expectancy
According to the World Health Organisation, Japanese men have a life expectancy of 80.5 years and women 87.3 years.
Okinawa Island
Technically a group of 150 islands in the south of Japan.
Ratio
Known as the “Okinawan ratio”, the diet comprises of a 10:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein.
Research
As carried out by the Okinawa Centenarian Study.
Socialise
Loneliness is as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, and can be more deadly than obesity. According to research by Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Dr Timothy Smith.
Bioengineering
Using artificial tissues and organs to replace damaged body parts.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.