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Last man born in the 19th century dies

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Courtesy ABC News

Liz Neporent

Jiroemon Kimura, the oldest man in recorded history,  has died. He was 116.

The government released a faxed statement today that said the resident of Kyōtango, Japan, was being treated for pneumonia in the past week when he stopped responding to treatment. He died of natural causes, according to the statement.

Kimura, who celebrated his 116th birthday at the end of last month, was the last man alive known to be born in the 19th century, according to Guinness World Records. He was also designated the oldest living person.

The "oldest living" distinction now belongs to 115-year-old Misao Okawa, also of Japan, a woman who was born March 5, 1898. The Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group lists her as one of 21 women born before New Year's Day in 1901 who are still alive and well.

Few people make it to their 110th birthday and beyond. Dr. Tom Perls, the director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University Medical Center, estimates there are only 200 to 300 of these "supercentenarians" in the world.

"People who live to that age are incredibly homogeneous, as if they have some key genetic features in common that get them to an incredibly old age," Perls said.

One commonality Perls' studies have found: About 90 percent of superagers are women. He speculates that having two X chromosomes offers a certain amount of protection from disease and disability.

"If one chromosome has some less-than-desirable aging or disease genetic variance, women seem to have the ability to choose a variant on the other chromosome that is more conducive to survival," he explained.

One of Perls' studies also showed that women who conceived naturally and carried a baby to full term after age 40 are at least four times more likely than average to live to the age of 100.

As for living a clean lifestyle, Perls said the research is mixed, with one study showing about 20 percent of people older than 103 practicing truly horrendous lifelong health habits including smoking, drinking, eating junk food and avoiding exercise.

Perls recalled that the oldest woman on record, Frenchwoman Madame Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122, smoked heavily until she was and continued to smoke one cigarette a day thereafter. Perls wondered whether she would have lived even longer had she kicked the habit.

But Perls stressed that it is rare to find a smoker who makes it past the century mark. The same holds truly of anyone who is even mildly overweight.

Perls concedes that supercentenarians, with their superior anti-aging genes, probably aren't the best lifestyle role models. Better to look to the Seventh-day Adventists, he said, a religious group whose active, vegetarian, highly social lifestyle appears to promote longevity.

"They live to an average age of 88," he said, "versus an average 78 for the rest of us."

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