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The Remarkable Life of the Oldest Known Woman to Ever Live

Ian Harvey
Jeanne Calment at age 120. Getty Images
Jeanne Calment at age 120. Getty Images

The average human lifespan at this point in time is about 72 years, according to the World Health Organization.

There is, of course, a lot of variation around that average, based on gender, where a person lives, and a variety of other factors.

There are individuals that blow that average off the map, reaching 100 years or more. And then there are the supercentenarians — people who have lived more than 110 years.

Birth certificate of Jeanne Louise Calment

Birth certificate of Jeanne Louise Calment

Jeanne Calment of Arles, France reportedly lived longer than anyone else in the world; she was 122 years and 164 days at her death, nearly doubling the global average.

Not only did Jeanne live a very long life, she stayed in remarkably good shape for the vast majority of it. She was reported to be nearly blind and deaf at the end of her life, but was said to be in good health up until about the last month of it.

Calment at age 20 in 1895.

Calment at age 20 in 1895.

To give some perspective, she was born in 1875, the year before Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and 14 years before the Eiffel Tower was built.

When she was only 12 or 13, she sold some canvas to Vincent Van Gogh at her father’s store.

Her assessment of the painter wasn’t very positive. She called him “very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick – I forgive him, they called him loco.”

Jeanne Louise Calment

Jeanne Louise Calment

In 1896 she married a cousin, a shop owner who was financially secure enough to support her without her needing to have a job. They were married for 46 years before he died, in 1942, as a result of food poisoning after eating spoiled preserved cherries.

The couple had one child, a daughter they called Yvonne. Yvonne married Joseph Billot and they produced a son, Frederic, in 1926. In 1934 Yvonne died of pneumonia, and Jeanne brought her grandson home and raised him. He grew up to become a physician and died in an auto accident in 1960.

Calment at age 40 in 1915

Calment at age 40 in 1915

Jeanne had no heirs. When she was 90, she sold her apartment to a lawyer with a contract that stipulated that he would pay her 2,500 francs a month until her death, at which time the apartment would be his. The lawyer died the year before Jeanne did, and his family continued to pay her until her death. By the time all was said and done, she had been paid about three times the apartment’s worth.

She rode her bicycle until she was 100. At 110, she entered a nursing home as a result of her increasing fragility. Five years later she fractured two bones in a fall, and her memory started to deteriorate. Despite that, her mind overall remained keen.

Once during this period, someone took leave of her by saying “See you next year, perhaps.”, and her response was, “I don’t see why not! You don’t look so bad to me.” She passed away on August 4, 1997.

Jeanne Calment age 20

Jeanne Calment age 20

Health and medical experts have all sorts of ideas about what contributes to some people having such extraordinarily long lives, but how accurate are they?

One common assumption is that genetics plays a major role. Jeanne certainly came from parents who also beat the average lifespan; her father was 93 at the time of his passing, and her mother was 86 at the time of hers, according to the New York Times.

Exercise is another factor many experts believe is important to attaining a long life. Jeanne Calment was physically active for most of her life. In addition to riding her bike, she took up roller skating, played tennis, hunted, and swam.

Her diet, which experts agree also plays a major role, was a little less than ideal, according to Katie Serena, writing for Awaken. She smoked. She was fond of beef and wine. She disliked food she thought was bland and often asked for fried and spicy foods.

She ate dessert every day until she was 116 and ate about two pounds of chocolate per week. She also put olive oil on a lot of her food, as well as using it daily on her skin, and attributed to it her good health.

Perhaps one of the real keys for Jeanne Calment, though, was that she wasn’t a worrier. According to thefamouspeople.com, she said that she had a very happy marriage, and she’d never fallen ill in her life, with the exception of the cherry incident which killed her husband. Jeanne painted and played the piano, and she said she never felt stressed.

Read another story from us: The World’s Oldest Nun who Defied the Nazis and Sheltered Jews During WWII

Whatever it was that contributed to her long life, it worked very well. The oldest person alive currently is Chiyo Miyako from Japan, but Miyako still has a few years to go to catch up, being only 117 today.