Friday, October 2, 2009

Following Death Of World's Oldest Person, Fox Developing Reality Show To Find Successor

by Benjo

Interesting story: my great-great-great-grandfather in Ukraine was the oldest person in the world for 30 years, having inherited the position from his father. He eventually lost the title in a battle against the Poles; otherwise, I might be fourth in line for the title today. Fascinating to see how the rules of succession change over time.

On the heels of the death of 115-year-old Gertrude Baines, who until her passing was the oldest living person, the Fox network has announced a reality show, tentatively titled Who Wants To Be the Oldest Person in the World?, which will crown a new oldest person.

The news was welcomed by elderly citizens like 99-year-old Abigail Lyman. “Here I am, skin dripping off me like cheese off a pizza; can't hear, see, think, walk, remember, move, drive, clean, work, cook, eat, or breathe on my own,” Lyman said. “And yet, these 115-year-old freaks think they deserve the title just because they've been wasting away a few years longer? Well wait till they see what's coming to them.”

Bruce Namath, professor of Elderly Studies at Washington State, noted that the reality-show format is just the latest in a long line of methods that have been used over the years to determine the world's oldest person. "For centuries, the title was passed from father to son," Namath said. "The modern criteria for the title were not adopted until 1923, when scientists discovered that oldness was a function of how long an individual had been alive."

In Namath's view, this led to a dark age for the "world's oldest person" title. “The idea that the title would based on longevity alone is age discrimination, plain and simple.”

In spite of Fox's elimination of this outdated system, Namath has some worries about the show. “We should be extremely concerned about the frequency with which the oldest person in the world has been dying,” he said. “Baines's oldest-person predecessor died in January, and the previous one passed away last November. That means the oldest person in the world has been dying at a rate of more than once every four months.”

There has been much speculation regarding why the world's oldest person dies so often, but Namath believes there is a simple explanation. “It's the pressure,” he said. “You've lived 115 years, and suddenly people all over the world know about you? For someone who was born in 1895, the existence of mirrors is hard enough to wrap your head around. Seeing a Wikipedia page about your 115-year-old self is the kind of thing that will make an egg salad out of your already scrambled brains.”

However, Nancy Wiley, Age Historian at the University of Tennessee, points out that the second- and third-oldest people have died just as frequently. “What that shows, I think, is that the danger is a result of simply being on an 'oldest persons' list at all,” Wiley said. “What we need is to do away with these lists.”

Wiley believes that, lists aside, these supercentenarians could be the key to what is seen as the holy grail of medical research: a cure for old age. “Clearly, these people have some sort of immunity to oldness. We need to be going through their gene sequence to determine whether there are any clues that could point us toward a treatment or a vaccine.”

Despite initial difficulties recruiting contestants due to the high likelihood of the winner's death, Fox executives have fielded a cast of 25 men and women between the ages of 31 and 102, who will fly to Belize, where shooting will begin on October 12. Episodes, which will hit the air in early 2010, will consist of a series of challenges, including dune-jumping, a two-minute underwater swim, and a memory contest. The winner of each challenge will be the individual who performs it in the oldest manner possible.

Executive producer Jerry Lankler expects the show to be a huge ratings winner this fall. He is already working on a spin-off, Deadest Person Alive—which, he noted, should not be confused with the ABC show formerly called Alivest Dead Person, which was later transformed into the hit show Corpses Do the Darnedest Things.

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