300 Years of Wisdom-Secrets of Longevity

By Noelle-Cole, Valerie; Kleyman, Paul | Aging Today, May/June 2003 | Go to article overview
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300 Years of Wisdom-Secrets of Longevity

Noelle-Cole, Valerie, Kleyman, Paul, Aging Today

Centenarians Speak Their Minds

What do "impersonating much younger people," "pretty women, good whiskey and good cigars," and "whistling while you walk" have in common? If centenarians Helen Bordman, baseball Hall of Famer Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, and Junius Gaten are to be believed, these are all secrets to living past the century mark.

Tom Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study (visit the website at www.bumc.bu.edu/centenarian), assembled a panel titled "300 Years of Collective Wisdom" featuring the trio of centenarians for a rollicking Closing General Session of the 2003 Joint Conference of the National Council on the Aging American Society on Aging in Chicago in March. Perls, a physician at Boston University Medical Center, is the coauthor of Living to Be 100: Lessons in Living to Your Maximum Potential at Any Age (New York City: Basics Books, 2000). He commented that the panelists-whose quick-witted remarks were repeatedly punctuated by audience laughter and applause-demonstrated how many centenarians break stereotypes of aging as an inevitable slide into decline


Helen Bordman, 106, was on hand with her 87-year-old husband, Bill-whom she married in 1995, She explained that they met at at their retirement community. "We were in plays together, and we were impersonating younger people." Bill said that when he told his children he planned to marry someone who was 98, said, "Are you out of your mind?" He, "When they met her they said, 'I see what you mean.'"

Helen's daughter, Mary Boyden, who joined the couple on stage, commented that news of their marriage "was absolutely wonderful. They complimented each other perfectly. Her eyesight was going but his vision was good. Bill's hearing was not so good but mother could hear better. They loved to travel and do the things." Boyden, is a social worker, added, "And the melding of families, even at this is possible," One difference, though, is that Helen is a Cubs fan-Bill roots for the White Sox. Bill quipped, "You see, true love never runs smooth."

Perls calculated that Helen was age 41 when Mary was born. "One of our predictors of getting to very old age in good health is having children in your 40s. Middle-aged mothers live longer," he said. "Not the act of having a child," he added. "It just you're doing very well in your 40s.

The researcher also noted that centenarians provide a living history. Bordman who will turn 107 on June 23, recounted visiting California as a child: "We heard that the Wright brothers were going to demonstrate a 'flying machine.'" She continued, "My father said, 'It certainly can't happen." So we went, and it flew. And we couldn't believe it. And when we think of what that developed into, with all the spaceships, we marvel even more than we did at moment."

Helen taught English speech before marrying her high-school sweet-heart. One of her fondest meories, she said, was visiting Europe once during their 43-year marriage. Then she added, "Bill and I have gone to Europe twice since we've been married."

To underline her point, Helen recited this poem:

My hearing isn't very good,/ And my vision isn't any better,/ And I sometimes stumble when I walk/ But if you ask me a question/I sure am glad I can still talk!


Perls observed that his research on centenarians has shown that they are "a pretty good model, for the most part, about what disease-free aging is all about. And what we're trying to learn from them." Often olders have a few diseases, and 70% have at least mild cognitive impairment, but those who surpass age 100 live independently, on average, into their early 90s, he said. Those who remain cognitively intact, such as Bordman, Radcliffe and Gaten, "just keep on going," he said. One aim of his study is to try to understand how they markedly delay or escape Alzheimer's disease-an ability to hold the disease at bay probably holds true for most centenarians.

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