Secrets of Centenarians

Q. The other day, I was reading about Susannah Mushatt Jones, who turned 116 last month in New York. She was born in 1899 and retired in 1965. She never smoked or drank, and says lots of sleep is the secret to her longevity.

I am in my 80’s and still have lots of energy and a zest for life. I hope to live as long as Ms. Jones, to see my grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up. I know you have a lot of clients in their 80’s and 90’s, and maybe even over 100. What do you surmise is the secret to their longevity?

A. One in 26 baby boomers is now expected to live to 100 and many more will reach the mid-to-late 90s, according to the book, Celebrate 100: Centenarian Secrets to Success in Business and Life. The book shares advice from interviews and surveys of more than 500 centenarians, who answer the question, “Will we still be having fun when we reach 100?” with a resounding “Yes!”

Born just a decade or so after the turn of the century, centenarians were teenagers during the Great Depression, young people during World War II, and, for some, grandparents by the time the 1960s rolled around. Their stories are different, but they share common themes.

Understanding centenarians is important to inform strategies to improve the delivery of health services for many individuals who will approach or achieve this milestone in the future. It is also important for seniors to understand the lifestyle choices that can influence longevity. Here are the “secrets” the 500 seniors interviewed cite for living a long and happy life (from the  Celebrate 100. . . book):

1. A Positive Attitude – Almost all of the centenarians interviewed believe a positive yet realistic attitude is critical throughout one’s life and described themselves as optimistic people. As an example, Trudi Fletcher of Tubac, Arizona, a lifelong artist, remains a professional painter at 100 and recently had a gallery exhibition showing off her new style. She credits her creative longevity to her positive, can-do attitude, and her love of painting.

2. Diet – The centenarians surveyed were critical of today’s supersized portions and the majority advised just eating nutritious food in moderation. Only 20% said they had ever been on a specialized diet plan, although some had become vegetarians. Lillian Cox, 107, of Tallahassee, Florida, confided that in her 50s she was overweight, but resolved to lose the weight. She did so and kept it off by just eating less, and continues to do so to this day.

3. Exercise – “You’ve got to exercise your mind as well as your body — everyone knows that, but I wonder how many are actually doing it,” says Louise Caulder, 101. “I don’t leave my bedroom before doing 30 minutes of stretches. Later, I walk a mile. Three times a week I play bridge.”

A few centenarians who successfully maintained their athleticism or gained new skills in later years have competed in the Senior Games. “I always thought of myself as an ordinary guy, but once I was in my 90s, I looked around and realized I was the oldest one at the bowling lanes and I could still keep up my score,” says George Blevins, 100. “So I entered the Senior Games and have enjoyed winning several medals, even at 100.”

Joe Meyser, 102, took up golf at 70, got pretty good and began competing in the Senior Games himself. “I drove to wherever they were holding them that year in my camper,” he says. “It was fun. I gave up the camper when I was 97, but won a gold medal at 100.”

4. Faith – For the centenarians interviewed, family and faith bring them contentment and cheer. They share a sense of wonderment at why and how they’ve lived this long. In fact, almost all the centenarians said that their faith has sustained them. Most believe they will be here as long as God has a purpose for them. “Perhaps we are here to be an example to others in hard times,” says Roberta McRaney, 101, whose original home was struck by lightning and burned to the ground, as did her rebuilt house.

5. Clean Living – Nearly 75% of the centenarians surveyed never smoked; most of the others stopped between the ages of 40 and 70. And while some never drank, most said they enjoyed only an occasional cocktail or a glass of wine; some still do.

For those interviewed, “clean living” also refers to doing what’s right and following your conscience. Harry Adler, 101, says it’s this simple: “Just stay out of trouble.”

6. A Loving Family – Family was universally important to centenarians surveyed. Although hard work and frugality characterized much of their lives, they now enjoy sharing their stories with great and great-great-grandchildren. Many spoke of the pleasure of watching younger generations grow and flourish. One respondent credited her longevity to “a wonderful and loving family, the good Lord, and a rum and Coke every afternoon.”

7. Genetics – All of the “secrets” mentioned so far reflect lifestyle choices that can influence longevity to varying degrees, but our genetic makeup makes a difference as well. Until medical science devises new ways to help us work with the genes we’ve been dealt, the secret is that some of us will be more prone to longevity than others. But there’s no reason to be discouraged: a large percentage of centenarians we surveyed said their parents and grandparents were not especially long-lived.

For the Centenarian Wannabes

Despite the inevitable ups and downs, the biggest secret these centenarians shared is that living to 100 is worth the effort.  So how can you follow in their footsteps? As you can see from the research, commonalities are that few centenarians are obese and few smoke or drink. In addition, most seem skilled at handling stress and find ways to process problems quickly, brushing them away rather than dwelling on them. In fact, another study of centenarians from the state of Georgia found they were more emotionally stable, extroverted, conscientious, and active in the community than their shorter-lived peers.

Who and where are the oldest living centenarians? The U.S. based Gerontology Research Group keeps a list. Learn more here.

Life Span vs. Health Span

When looking at centenarians, keep in mind that life span in the United States is not necessarily matched by increases in “health span,” or time spent living in good health. Longer life spans have been accompanied by a tremendous increase in the disease burden due to Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. In fact, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 9 Americans over 65 has Alzheimer’s disease. And, when the first wave of baby boomers reaches age 85 (in 2031), it is projected that more than 3 million people age 85 and older will have Alzheimer’s. Unless a cure is found, more than 16 million Americans will have the disease by 2050.

Planning for Your Future

Luck and genetics play roles in longevity, of course, but you can’t control that. If you want to better your odds of hitting 100, focus on what you can do, such as eating healthy, exercising, and cutting down on stress. As you are taking care of yourself and enjoying your life, it is also a good idea to plan for your future and for your loved ones. Our firm is dedicated to helping protect seniors preserve dignity, quality of life, and financial security. If you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning, or Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, call us to make an appointment for a consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law Attorney: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law Attorney: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.