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Newsmaker: Emma Morano

It’s one thing reaching an age when your friends and contemporaries start dying and you begin to wonder when it will be your turn. It’s quite another to find yourself pronounced the world’s oldest person.

In May, that honour fell to Emma Morano, an Italian woman born in 1899, when the former holder of the title passed away.

On May 12, Susannah Mushatt Jones, born in Alabama in 1899, died at the grand old age of 116 years and 311 days. She in turn had picked up the mantle in June last year, when Jeralean Talley, another American citizen, died at the age of 116 years and 25 days.

Now Morano, who celebrated her 117th birthday on Tuesday, has entered uncharted waters. She’s only the second Italian since 1957 to pick up the longevity gauntlet (although, curiously, and possibly as a great endorsement for pasta and olive oil, three of the young whippersnappers at her heels are also Italians, all in their 114th year). Compatriot Rosalia Spot held the crown for one year and 119 days until her demise at the age of 109 years and 179 days in February 1957 – at which point Morano was a sprightly 58.

Now, 59 years later and 200 days into her reign, Morano is within three weeks of equalling the benchmark set by Misao Okawa, a Japanese woman who made it to 117 years and 27 days before her death last year. At that point, Morano will become the verified fifth-oldest person ever to have lived.

When it comes to the longevity stakes, it’s easy to get lost in the numbers. Perhaps the most clarifying way to think about Morano’s run is to consider that it began in the same year that Marconi first transmitted a radio signal across the English channel and that Elgar’s Enigma Variations was performed for the first time. Others, all long gone, who shared her birth year included Ernest Hemingway, Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart and Noel Coward.

As far as anyone knows, Morano is now the last person alive who was born in the 1800s. That makes her queen of the 45 living “supercentenarians” – people 110 years old or more – recognised and tracked by the global Gerontology Research Group.

Emma Martina Luigia Morano arrived into the world on November 29, 1899, the eldest of eight children born to Giovanni Morano and Matilde Bresciani. Though reportedly a sickly child, she would outlive all her siblings, though her sister Angela, born nine years later, gave her a run for her money until 2011, when she died at the age of 102.

Morano was born in Civiasco, a picturesque town in the beautiful Sesia Valley in Italy’s mountainous northern Piedmont region. As an adult, she moved to the town of Verbania, still in Piedmont but on the shore of Lake Maggiore, and has lived there ever since.

Unmoving and apparently unmoved by the march-past of history, she has watched Italy abandon monarchy first for democracy and then fascism (she remembered it, she told La Stampa in 2011, “because they kept doing parades”), then democracy again. She has seen 10 popes come and go.

Her life, though lived among spectacularly beautiful scenery and interesting times, has been both prosaic and tragic. Indeed, as one newspaper put it last year, when she became the oldest living person in Europe, “her routine life … might have raised barely an eyebrow were it not for the fact that she’s managed to hold on to it for so long”.

By one account, she was in love with an Italian soldier killed in the First World War, and after his death never really rediscovered her enthusiasm for romance. Regardless, in October 1926, at the age of 22, she married a man called Giovanni Martinuzzi. The proposal, she has said, was an unhappy one, and the marriage followed suit. “He told me: ‘If you’re lucky, you marry me, or I’ll kill you’,” she told La Stampa five years ago. “I got married.”

It was 1937, the eve of the war that would end Italy’s 20-year affair with fascism, before the couple had their first and only child. The boy died just six months later and – again, by Morano’s account – the following year she threw out her husband. They never divorced – it was illegal in Italy until 1970 – and she kept his name until his death in 1978. She never remarried.

Her working life was unremarkable; until 1954 she worked in a jute factory, then after that in a kitchen at a boarding school. She finally retired in 1974, at the age of 75.

Life began to become more interesting for Morano as she started knocking off the records – oldest in Italy, oldest in Europe, then oldest in the world. Inevitably, journalists and geneticists have beaten a path to her door, eager to discover the “secret” of her long life. There isn’t one of course, except a genetic predisposition – her mother lived to 91 and three sisters got past 100 – but she has gamely given them what they want.

“Raw eggs,” she told one interviewer – three a day since her teens, when a doctor prescribed them, supposedly as a cure for anaemia. That, as one newspaper worked out, added up to about 100,000 eggs and a whole lot of cholesterol. This week, her baffled long-term doctor told journalists: “Emma has always eaten very few vegetables, very little fruit”.

On other occasions she has credited solitude as the magic elixir. After she ditched her allegedly violent husband, “I didn’t want to be dominated by anyone”, she told The New York Times last year.

Thanks to that remark, the woman who has not left her apartment for 20 years found herself being recruited as a hero of feminism. A musical currently playing in her hometown, based on her life story, “represents the feminine courage which rebelled against domestic violence”, the writers told the BBC.

Now the oldest living person by 101 days, she’s sixth in line for the title of oldest person ever. If she survives another 247 days from today, she will have climbed three more places to third.

After that, the going really gets tough. Second place is currently held by American Sarah Knauss, who made it to 119 years and 97 days before she died in December 1999. But to make it to the top slot, Morano would have to live for another five years and 163 days to topple Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment. Born in 1875, she bowed out in August 1977, at the age of 122 years and 164 days.

The make-up of the Top 100 list reveals the real secret to all their long lives. Wherever you live (though it helps if it’s the United States or Japan, which dominate the standings) there’s one thing that improves your chances of becoming a supercentenarian: be a woman. Only six men make the grade, and all of them are no longer with us.

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