Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Guest Post: Death of the Modern Methuselah

This post first appeared on Today In Alternate History.


On 29 June, 1934, the world-famous centenarian Zaro Aga died in Istanbul Province, Turkey. Aged 170 years, 133 days the so-called "Giant Kurd" was the longest-living person in recorded history and considered the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

A global celebrity who had recently toured America, his dead body was immediately sent back to the United States. This examination was for verification by leading scientists with expertise in the ageing process. Various tests (including X-Rays) by these gerontologists were conducted, which identified little apart form the presence of an unusually large heart. However, in addition to the authentication of his birth certificate, his claims to have met Napoleon were independently validated. His age was then certified by the American actuary and gerontology researcher Walter Bowerman in a report published in 1939.

Convinced of Aga's incredible age, Bowerman then travelled to southwest China to investigate the claims that a herbalist and martial arts specialist called Li Ching-Yuen had lived to 252 years old. This was corroborated after he inspected Chinese government records that included letters of congratulations for his 150th and 200th birthdays and interviewing his neighbours, who asserted that their grandfathers knew him when they were boys and that he at that time was a grown man.

The science of gerontology rapidly advanced after Bowerman returned to the United States on the eve of World War II. The tentative conclusion validated Continuity Theory. This theory proposed that adaptive strategies enabled Zaro Aga and Li Ching-Yuen to continue the same energetic behaviours beyond the normal limitations of old age.

By the time that Bowerman died in November 1974, widespread testing of these adaptive strategies had been vigorously conducted for over 25 years. There was no evidence that extended longevity was inherited. Instead, gerontologists concluded that lifespans of beyond 150 were dependent upon a complex series of additional factors that included birth geography, physiology as well as exercise, behavior , and diet.

Unable to reproduce the phenomena in the laboratory, Methuselah Communities were established in Kurdistan and southwest China in an attempt to recreate exactly the same sets of breeding conditions. At the time of writing, it is widely predicted that these long-lived human beings will crew the space colonization ships of the future. But until scientists can "bottle" the so-called Aga-Ching-Yuen factor, such a scheme could only augment the life-span of the first generation crew members.

Author's Note:

In reality, Bowerman validated the claim of Delina Filkins to be 113 and advocated that actuarial tables have an upper cutoff of between 115 and 120 years. He concluded that Aga was around 97, not 157. He never travelled to China. Meanwhile, Li Ching-Yuen claims are considered to be a myth by gerontologists and Aga himself refused to believe them.

Provine's Addendum:

 Coming at the problem of aging from another, environmental, angle, scientists Tel Aviv University used experimental hyperbaric treatments with high-oxygen environments that extended telomeres (the edges of DNA that shorten over time, believed to be a major component of aging) as well as improving brain function. This contributed to the hopes of using long-lived humans aboard spacecraft, where the environment was already artificially created and controlled. Even without issues of Relativity with interstellar craft reaching planets in distant solar systems, it seemed that someday it would be commonplace for an old astronaut to return to Earth to meet his great-great-great-great-grandchildren.

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