The death of Shirali Muslimov last year at the reported age of 168 was a blow to the village of Barzavu, in the Soviet Caucasus. It ended the role of the mountain hamlet not only as a tourist attraction but also as a gerontological mecca. For decades Soviet and Western scientists had made the pilgrimage to Barzavu to auscultate stouthearted Muslimov and inquire about his diet, life-style and sexual habits. But his death still left thousands of alleged supercentenarians in the U.S.S.R. vying for the attention of gerontologists.
Now the Methuselah syndrome that has flourished for years in the U.S.S.R. is about to be debunked, and by no less an authority than the eminent Russian-born biologist and student of aging, Zhores A. Medvedev. Exiled and working in London, Medvedev, 48, has written an article for an upcoming issue of the Gerontologist in which he systematically destroys the myth of the supercentenarians, not only in the Soviet Union but also in Kashmir and Ecuador. "The trouble is that many scientists have taken for granted that these old people are telling the truth, and then they try to find some reasons to explain their supposed longevity," Medvedev told TIME. The result, he said, is "pseudo science" based on largely falsified data. Not one of the 500 people in the Caucasus claiming to be from 120 to 165 years old has been able to produce valid birth records. Neither has any of the superannuated Kashmirians or Ecuadorians.
Moreover, says Medvedev, when about 40 medical, psychological and biochemical tests were run in 1972 on reputed centenarians in the U.S.S.R., a commission of gerontologists was surprised by the "paradoxical" finding that the function and metabolism of the oldsters were the same as those of people about 60 years old. Proven centenarians in the West exhibit a degeneration appropriate to their age, says Medvedev.
Rewards of Age. The fact is that no man or woman with a verifiable birth record is known to have lived longer than 113 years. As Actuary Walter G. Bowerman has pointed out, assertions of extreme longevity originate mainly in remote, underdeveloped regions among illiterate peoples whose only evidence of age is their own claim, possibly supported by an interested relative.
Age claims beyond the tenth decade attract favorable attention, may bring financial reward, and summon up dreams of immortality. The bases of such fantasies lie deep in the unconscious and are almost universal. But only in the U.S.S.R. has longevity been elevated to a state-supported cult.
No scientists have been able to prove the claimed ages of the centenarians or satisfactorily explain longevity among such widely dispersed peoples, says Medvedev. He methodically ticks off each suggested cause. It is not mountain air, because many of the oldsters live at sea level. Nor is it temperature, because some live in torrid and others in frigid zones. Diet varies radically. Some of the people studied subsist on what heart specialists would consider healthful fare while others consume great quantities of fats and wine.