Secrets of the Centenarians

Aging Today, May/June 2005 | Go to article overview

Secrets of the Centenarians

"I'm nearly dead," declared Ruth Sneider. She added, "I want to tell you all that it's no fun being 103.1 don't recommend it unless you're really well." In fact, Sneider was alive and very well following an ordeal with a late limousine that then broke down on her way to speak at the 2005 Joint Conference of the American Society on Aging and the National Council on the Aging in Philadelphia in March. She joined four others of her special generation for the closing general session titled "Raising the Bar for the Rest of Us: Centenarians Share 500 Years of Collective Wisdom."

Sneider, who was soon in lively form, arrived with several of her floral watercolors. "I sold many of them," she said, for as much as $200. "I'm keeping up to date, and they're on the Internet and are shown all over the world, so I'm happy to that extent." Her daughter Harriet Robbins explained that Sneider took up painting only eight years ago-at age 95-after moving to the Willow Valley assisted living facility near Lancaster, Pa. She was unhappy at having to giving up her independence, Robbins continued. "That's how she got into art, I think; she was bored."


Session moderator Tom Peris, director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University's Medical Center, noted that Sneider is not unique in taking up a new, creative endeavor so late in life. He recalled that an early participant in the study, which is funded by the National Institute on Aging, started writing her autobiography at age 92. Five years later, she worked with a literary agent to pare down her 900-page manuscript to a more manageable 600. Peris emphasized, though, that only about 30% of the roughly 70,000 centenarians in the United States are doing quite well, without some degree of cognitive impairment or other functional disability.

Among centenarians, Peris said, about 50% reside in nursing homes, 15% live by themselves and 35% either live with someone or in assisted living. He noted, though, that 90% of those in his study who reach age 100 live independently until the average age of 92. "What the centenarians have done for me is disprove the idea that the older you get the sicker you get," he said.

Peris, a coauthor of Living to Be 100: Lessons in Living to Your Maximum Potential at Any Age (New York City: Basic Books, 1999), stressed that in spite of researchers' early efforts to identify common factors among centenarians that might hold lessons for the overall population, few have emerged. One, he said, is humor: "We wonder if that's part of some interesting personality traits that are conducive to managing stress well." During the Philadelphia session, the audience chuckled when Evelyn "Tootie" Yeager, age 101, of nearby Walnut Port, quipped, "If the Phillies were playing today, I wouldn't be here." Her daughter, Jane Wolfe, 63, commented, "My mother has a sense of humor all the time. She keeps everybody in the family smiling."

Scientists studying whether an active mind helps forestall the onset of cognitive impairments might look to Alan Hopenwasser of Philadelphia, age 102. A survivor of the Holocaust in World War II, Hopenwasser, who led the audience in a chorus of Hava Nagila, speaks four languages.


Generally, though, Peris said, centenarians "tend to be a very heterogeneous group." He said that when the New England Centenarian Study began in 1994, "we had all kinds of hypotheses about years of education, socioeconomic status, access to healthcare, all the things that we as gerontologists equate with more longevity. But this group is all over the place." Education among participants ranges from those with Ph.D.s to others who got as far as the eighth grade. Some were born with a silver spoon in their mouths; others entered life in extreme poverty. Some, like 100-year-old Alden Cressy of Whiting, N.J., have healthful secrets to their longevity-"oatmeal that hasn't been cooked. …

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