Howard S. Friedman Ph.D.

Secrets of Longevity

Oldest Living Man Dies At Age 111 With Sense of Humor Intact

It certainly was not stress that killed him

Posted Jun 09, 2014

The world’s oldest living man, Dr. Alexander Imich, has died at age 111. Although some men claim to be older, Imich was the oldest with solid documentation of his date of birth. What was his secret to longevity?

When asked recently by NBC news about how he lived so long, Dr. Imich quipped that it was because he didn’t die earlier. This is reminiscent of the aphorism from Groucho Marx that aging is not particularly interesting: Anyone can get old because all you have to do is live long enough.

But when pressed, Dr. Imich pointed to his diet, his abstinence from alcohol, his exercise, and his genes. I have heard other centenarians (100-year-olds) likewise point to their eating of salads, habits of drinking or not drinking, religion, sleep habits, and on and on. In reality, the truth is closer to what Dr. Imich hinted at in the first place, namely that he had no idea why he lived so long.

Obviously biology plays an important role, but perhaps not as large as you might think. Out of the billions of people in the world, only a few men ever live beyond 112 and only a few dozen women live beyond that. Your chances of running into a 118-year-old are zero (although one woman, Madame Calment, lived to 122). So biology places an upper limit. But why do some make it well into their 80s and 90s or even 100s, while many others die in their 40s, 50s, and 60s? This is the question we have been studying in our work on The Longevity Project.

Various studies suggest that about a quarter to one-third of the variation in human longevity is directly controlled by our genes. The rest is determined by how we live and by chance. Fortunately, we are uncovering more and more about lifelong patterns that keep us healthy.

Lucid and bright right up until his death, Imich was born in Poland to a Jewish family and had to flee in 1939 when the Nazis invaded. He had previously fought the Bolsheviks. He spent time in a Soviet labor camp during the war, and later came to the United States (in 1952), as most of his family and friends had been killed by the Nazis. He earned a PhD in zoology but could not find a job. He eventually switched to chemistry, and then later in life wrote a book about parapsychology. As you might imagine, he also faced severe financial hardships at various times in his life. In other words, he had what most of us would today call a very, very “stressful” life.

One of the most fascinating findings of our work on The Longevity Project is that stress, as it is usually conceived, is not a big health threat. But a sense of humor was not the secret to longevity either. On the contrary, we found again and again, that people who face many life challenges and attack them with persistence, prudence, and a planful relishing of the experience, will often tend to thrive. The next time you think you are being sickened by a challenge at work or a hassle at school, remember Alexander Imich.

If you are interested, The Longevity Project, which explains the long-term pathways to thriving, was published in paperback edition by Plume (see http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/ ) and is also available on Kindle and Nook. The book also contains self-assessment quizzes to help you figure your current trajectory. There is also a Facebook page for The Longevity Project.

Image: /Human_baby.JPG By Drmies (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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