Chapter 16: The Magic and Mystery of 100

The centenarians are here; but who are they?

In 1998, Hallmark card company introduced its first 100th birthday cards. By 2007, they were selling 85,000 a year in the U.S. – very close, coincidentally, to the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate of some 82,000 centenarians for that year. Today, the number of American 100-year-olds probably stands closer to 90,000, suggesting about 6,000 in Canada. Centenarians are now the fastest growing age demographic in the world. Until recently, a 100th birthday was cause for a newspaper article; today, one retirement home in Toronto alone – Belmont House – has 12 Centenarians. What was once more exclusive than the seven-figure salary, the three-figure age has become a major factor in the story of modern aging. Hundred-year-olds are no longer curiosities; they have arrived.

Yet what fascinates me most about the mystique of living a full century is how little more we actually know about it today than what’s available in the Bible. It seems that for all the recent medical advances, all the improvements, better nutrition and education and an easier, less dangerous life that make for extended longevity, it’s the Bible, written between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago, which firmly fixes the epitome of old age at 120 years. “My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.” 1

How old was the oldest fully documented person who ever lived, Jeanne Calment of France, when she died in 1997? 122. “Biz hunderdt und zwanzig!” runs the Yiddish benediction: “May you live to be 120!” Notwithstanding Methuselah, the Bible and folklore pegged the limit eons ago, while science is just approaching it.

When Centenarians are interviewed about the secret of reaching 100, it turns out there is no consistency in either their prescriptions or their personal experience. The “key,” apparently, is either to live a sober and abstemious life or one heavy on sex, drugs and rock and roll. Some Centenarians drink alcohol once a day, some more, some none. Smoking seems contraindicated but only tobacco and cigarettes, not cigars or pipes (Jeanne Calment gave up cigarettes at the age of 117). Natalia and Leonid Gavrilov, a wife-and-husband team of actuarial longevity researchers, who spoke at the CARP Conference last year, suggest that it also helps to be born of a young mother, in the months of September, October or November, to live on a farm and to avoid being fat at age 30.

But later, it may not matter. “These people were more obese, smoked more and did less exercise than everyone else, so it certainly wasn’t their lifestyle” is how Dr. Nir Barzilai, a professor of medicine and genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, describes the 500 Centenarians in his LonGenity study, designed to look for unique biological markers in 100-year-olds.

The five Blue Zones2, where 100-year-olds appear disproportionately (Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California), share some things in common but have just as many differences. So it would appear that, instead of being a priceless compendium of practical lessons about how to achieve long life, Centenarians remain a mystery even to themselves. But if we stop asking how they got there and look at who they are instead, then Centenarians do have something invaluable to teach us.

In a 1994 study, Harvard University researchers discovered the startling fact that most 100-year-olds didn’t have Alzheimer’s. The main finding of the New England Centenarian Study (NECS) is an expansion of this anomaly: not only don’t Centenarians usually suffer from Alzheimer’s, they’re equally resistant to the other chronic illnesses associated with age – cardiovascular problems and diabetes for two – until just before they die. Often, they escape these diseases altogether. More than 90 per cent of Centenarians are physically and mentally healthy throughout their 90s, and 50 per cent continue to live on their own or with their families.

In short, Centenarians aren’t typical 80-year-olds with 20 more years of decline added on. Effectively, they don’t decline; they simply die (the kind of death, incidentally, to which most of us aspire). “Centenarians disprove
the notion that the older you get, the sicker you get,” clarifies Thomas Perls, a Boston University professor of geriatrics and Director of the NECS, “they teach us that [at a certain point] the older you get, the healthier you’ve been.” We’re all familiar with the observation that “aging isn’t for sissies” and, for many older people who suffer increasing physical discomfort and mental confusion, the maxim is undoubtedly true. It’s a fear reflected in surveys showing that 75 per cent of adults today don’t wish to live to 100, and “very few want to live to 120 even if that were possible.” But Centenarians turn the rule on its head. In a way, they’re a different species, with a paradoxical message: if you want to avoid the erosion and malaise of aging, you have two choices – die young or die really old.

Centenarians are also surprisingly positive about their lives. That is, they think they’re getting better. More than 60 per cent claim their health has improved in the past five years. In 1966, a study done in Georgia discovered that 67 per cent of 100-year-olds lived below the poverty line. When it came to financial reserves and money available for more than the bare necessities, they were twice as badly off as average 60-year-old Americans. Yet, 95 per cent said they had enough money to meet their needs, and three-quarters said they could afford extras. Their optimism might seem deluded, but it makes sense: it isn’t money that determines who’s happy but who is happiest with what they have. The journal Gerontology not long ago published a study that found that Centenarians are disproportionately able to achieve “congruence,” a psychological term for the feeling of harmony we experience when the various parts of our lives are in balance. It doesn’t hurt that the most Centenarians also possess the most priceless commodity of all, their health.

So the two definite things we do know about Centenarians are these: one, their numbers are increasing exponentially; and two, they are, against all odds, a predominantly healthy and happy group of people. The ramifications are fascinating. One particularly tasty tidbit, at least for the guys, is that, once you get to 100, the girls outnumber boys nine to one. So, no matter how geeky or shy you happen to be, if you make it to 100, you’re pretty much assured of getting a date. On a less whimsical note, the new Centenarian Reality means we’ll need to adjust our personal timeline to accommodate a much longer, vigorous lifespan, and so to redefine what and when it is to be young or middle-aged or old.

Given what we know about trends and medical advances, just how many Centenarians will there be in the future? This is where the statistics move from the surprising to the stunning. According to a study published in 2009 in The Lancet, perhaps the world’s most quoted medical journal, more than half the babies born today in the developed nations will live to be 100. Close to four million babies are born every year in the U.S. and more than half a million in Canada. A rough extrapolation projects that by the year 3011, 100 years from now, there could be 22 million Centenarians in the U.S. – approximately the present population of Australia; and more than 2.5 million in Canada – approximately the present population of the core City of Toronto.

The so-called grey tsunami that is spooking the world today is a mere wading pool compared to what the future holds. But that future tsunami need not be a decrepit one. If the current profile of Centenarians holds, they will be even healthier than 100-year-olds are today. With persistent work by CARP and other organizations like it, they will also be a vital, respected part of society in a way that seniors today can only dream of – as much Centurions as Centenarians.

By then, hopefully, they will have imparted a few more of their secrets to the young, including one I’ve stumbled on myself. This is something also confirmed by the British Office for National Statistics; namely, that bosses live longer! Which is to say that autonomy is hugely important and pays off in extra years as compared to people who have little say in what they do. It appears that an independent frame of mind – plus a curiosity to see what comes next in life – may well increase our chances of reaching 100.

And here’s another lesson that SuperCentenarians can teach the young: humility. In 1965, when Jeanne Calment, the world old-age record holder to be, was already 90, a 45-year-old lawyer named André-François Raffray purchased the apartment she was living in on an unusual basis. He agreed to pay her a monthly stipend of 2,500 francs ($400 today) until her death, at which point the apartment would become his. Raffray died at the age of 77, in 1996, when Calment was only 121 years old and alive enough to have collected more than $180,000 in monthly payments, more than twice the apartment’s market value. When she died a year later, his family was still paying.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.