Few people alive today were born before Lou Gehrig, Bing Crosby and John Dillinger, considering they all entered the world in mid-1903.
But a resident of a Greensburg nursing home can make that claim. Irene Ciuffoletti celebrated her 113th birthday there Tuesday while continuing her status as Pennsylvania’s oldest person, also fifth most senior in the United States. She and other St. Anne Home residents ate cake and enjoyed music while marking the latest milestone of a woman whose religious faith has dictated her clean-living habits for many decades.
Mrs. Ciuffoletti, a widow for more than half a century, has outlived all but one of her five sons. She was already a centenarian when she arrived at the nursing home in 2008, becoming an active participant ever since in daily Mass and weekly bingo. She still propels her wheelchair around the facility herself while remaining — silly as it sounds to say — quite healthy for her age.
“She does really well,” said St. Anne assistant administrator Christy Kremer. “She does whatever she can for herself, and we assist with the rest.”
Mrs. Ciuffoletti’s surviving son, Julius, has preferred keeping her away from the media after regretting a prior experience, so no reporters or photographers were invited to the nursing home Tuesday. But Ms. Kremer said the former New Kensington and Arnold resident, who immigrated from Italy with her parents in 1912, “grinned ear to ear” last week upon hearing her birthday was upcoming.
St. Anne followed its customary monthly practice Tuesday in holding a joint party for everyone who was born in January. If Mrs. Ciuffoletti harbored any disappointment about sharing the special day, there was no word of it. It’s possible, anyway, that she believes surrounding herself with people in their 80s and 90s helps keep her young.
To find the closest person her own age, she’d have to travel nearly 200 miles to Frederick, Md., to visit Helen Wheat, who turned 113 in September. She is one of at least four living Americans born before Mrs. Ciuffoletti, the oldest of them Susannah Mushatt Jones, 116, of Brooklyn, N.Y., also recognized as the oldest person in the world. (Mrs. Ciuffoletti is 20th.)
The Gerontology Research Group is the organization that tracks such things, with a team that uses birth certificates, census records and other documentation to try to verify the age of those who claim to be at least 110. It maintains a running list of such individuals, known as supercentenarians, with 53 worldwide recognized at present.
Robert Young of Atlanta, the group’s director of supercentenarian research, presumes at least 10 times as many people who aren’t on the list may also be 110 or older.
It is hard, he noted, to verify the ages of exceptionally old people in countries that lack a strong history of centralized government record-keeping. No one from India or China, the world’s two most populous nations, is on the list, which is dominated by residents of the U.S., Japan and Western Europe. And even people from those more well-documented areas may be unaware of the research group or prefer to avoid the attention of having their names posted on the group’s website.
“The list is like the stock market — it goes up and down, but the general trend is higher” in the number of recognized supercentenarians, Mr. Young said. “We have more cases ready to go, so in a way, the list is like [waiting on election night for] votes coming in. … If we were caught up in our work, we would probably have more than 100 people on our list.”
No one has come anywhere close to matching the longevity record of Jeanne Louise Calment, a Frenchwoman who smoked much of her life before dying at age 122. At the time of her death in 1997, there was speculation she was leading the vanguard of a new era of human longevity. With no evidence that anyone else has reached even 120, Mr. Young said it now appears that Ms. Calment was an extreme “outlier,” akin to a 100-year flood.
Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, says genetics rather than lifestyle choices is the biggest factor in explaining extreme longevity, but artificial means also help people more commonly reach a second century of life than before. There are more centenarians than ever — at least 53,000 at the U.S. Census Bureau’s last count.
“Some of the people reaching 100 years old now are not naturally occurring,” Dr. Barzilai said. “They have pacemakers and hip replacements and other things, so that there are more of them being saved, but less people getting to this really old, old age. … If your parents or grandparents were not supercentenarians, you don’t want to bet on [making] it.”
So it may be less impressive than it once was to hit 100 or 110. And if you get beyond 110, there’s only a 50 percent chance each year of continuing, Mr. Young said. About half of those on the supercentenarian list at 110 don’t make it to 111, and then half of those don’t make it to 112, and so on.
While such extraordinary individuals come with a range of backgrounds from a variety of places, they do share one very common trait: All 53 of the known supercentenarians are female after the death Tuesday morning in Japan of 112-year-old Yasutaro Koide, who had been recognized as the world’s oldest man.
The one other Pennsylvanian on the list, 112-year-old Delphine Gibson, is described by her Huntingdon County nursing home as doing well despite difficulties with eyesight and hearing.