Why Living to 100 Isn't Everybody's Dream
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Health

Are You Aiming for 100? Not Your Test Score, but Your Age?

The secret to living a long and healthy life.

Women raising glasses over a cake with an 100 candle
Min Heo

When my niece posted on a text-message thread an article about the oldest living Marine, Dorothy Schmidt Cole, who died at age 107 this past January, my 97-year-old mother, Mildred, commented, “I will try to beat her record.” 

At the rate she’s going, I won’t be surprised if she does. Her two main doctors — young, handsome and smart — both said Mom’s blood work is better than theirs. Although 31 years her junior, it’s my mom I turn to when I can’t read labels (even while I’m wearing my 3.0 magnifying glasses) and when I can’t find my keys.

Her high cheekbones and widow’s peak are still prominent, but her once full lips have vanished. Mom continues to bleach her own hair blond. She doesn’t miss an opportunity to play cards with the girls and to dine in a fine restaurant. She always leaves home all dolled up, with a snazzy outfit and matching shoes.

People keep telling me, “You have good genes.” Yet my brother got cancer and died at age 72. 

At 66, I’m hoping to make it to 100 years old — if I’m still fit mentally and physically. I have come to believe what my mother tells me: “Age is just a number.”

During the last decade, the number of seniors who’ve reached their 100th birthdays has nearly doubled, from 53,000 in 2010 to 92,000 in 2020. Women are the overwhelming majority in the super-ager pack, comprising approximately 80 percent of the centenarian population, as cited by the U.S. Census Bureau.           

Kathrin Boerner, a research scientist on aging at the University of Massachusetts, said that beyond staying as healthy as possible with diet and exercise, longevity comes down to seniors asking themselves, “How do I cope with what I’ve got? It’s the strength of their adaptive capacity.”

The average age of patients in Peter Cowan’s medical practice in West Palm Beach, Florida, spans the 80s. With deep experiences in treating the inevitable health challenges of an older population, he finds it’s the women who have that better adaptive capacity.

“Most of my late-90s- or even 100-year-old patients have been women,” Cowan says. “I had a 96-year-old you would think was 80. How did they get to their 80s? Did they run or limp there? I think a lot of men were less careful with their health care. Women stay in better shape. They are better at staying involved with other people. I have a 90-year-old woman who, before COVID-19, still went to Zumba classes at the gym at 8 a.m.”           

Tom Perls, M.D., is the founder and director of the New England Centenarian Study, the largest study of centenarians and their families in the country. He, too, calls women “the true winners” in the longevity marathon.           

“The biological reasons for this have not been proven, though there are some tempting hypotheses that scientists are pursuing,” Perls says. “An obvious difference between men and women is that women have two X chromosomes, and there are a bunch of genes on the X chromosome that are important to slower aging, such as the DNA repair genes.”           

We all know of older celebrity women who are role models for their vitality and productivity. Judi Dench, 86, just released a new film, Blithe Spirit. Jane Fonda, 82, and Lily Tomlin, 81, produced and starred in the seven-season Netflix hit Grace and Frankie. Betty White, 99, was still at work in 2019 as a voice actor in the film Toy Story 4.          

Gerontologists point to three arteries of life that contribute to aging well: staying fit with movement and diet; staying connected to a supportive and intimate community; and staying engaged with lifelong brain activity, be it with gardening or crossword puzzles or continuing education classes. These super-agers make sure they have something to look forward to every day, which helps them stay relevant and instills a will to live.           

My mother certainly embodies these three elements. She’s up and out by 7 a.m. to head to the athletic center, where she exercises for 20 minutes on the recumbent bike. To work the rest of her body, she does a 20-minute chair workout by following a fitness video on YouTube. Then it’s time for breakfast, which is yogurt mixed with fresh fruit. Her other meals consist of protein and vegetables.           

She went from lying about her age to wearing it like a badge of honor. Mom often pulls out the age card, batting her eyelashes at waiters and saying: “You know, I’m 97.” She stares at them until they melt and return with a free glass of wine.           

Peter Martin, professor of gerontology at Iowa State University, often tells his audiences when he makes his presentations: “If men want to become 100, they have to start behaving a lot more like women.”

Another strong female role model is 96-year-old Olga Murray. She’s been divorced for many years and has two stepchildren that are like her own. After retiring as a staff attorney with the California Supreme Court in 1992, she has been unstoppable.

While trekking from Pokhara to Sikles in the Himalayan mountains in Nepal in 1984, she walked through remote villages where children lived in poverty. These kids had little access to schools, and Olga established a foundation that provides funds to educate them. Her days now start at 6:30 a.m., when she listens to NPR, and then she works out with a trainer and still does some foundation work.           

“I’d love to be a centenarian if I could live as I’m living now,” says Murray from her Sausalito, California, home, which has a view of the Richardson Bay. “I wake up in the morning and I see the water.”

Though the prospect of a long life is appealing to most, not everyone wants to be a centenarian. Davida Rosenblum, 95, who has a Ph.D. from Columbia University, gives an adamant “No!” when asked if she wants to reach the 100 mark. “Because my illnesses are getting worse,” she adds, talking about her diabetes and other health conditions. Rosenblum admits that she never exercised or was careful about the foods she consumed. She was more consumed with intellectual pursuits: “I’ve always been curious about life and I always loved reading. I’ve never felt a loss for what I have done.”

The good news, I learned from medical experts, is that genetics plays a smaller role in life expectancy than we believe.

“There is no one single predictor of longevity,” Iowa State professor Martin explained. “The basic components are family history, environment, support, personality, behavioral skills, and then physical and mental health. It’s not just genes. You also learn from your family to have a certain lifestyle.”           

Mom has certainly passed on to me her courage and sense of adventure. Together we have explored India, where we rode on an elephant, went on a pre-sunrise rowboat ride in the Ganges River and watched the morning cremations, and later had our hands tattooed with henna. On my own, I have chartered sailboats in the unfamiliar waters of Sweden.

I look at this wise and spry woman, who lost her husband 15 years ago and recently lost a son, and ask her for her secret to living so long.

“I don’t try to change things I can’t,” my mom says with a big smile. “I accept people for who they are. And if I don’t like them, I just avoid them. I live life as if I was 50 years old. I also hang around with people who are 10 to 30 years younger. If I want to go to the bar, I go to the bar. If I want to travel, I travel. If I want to drive, I drive. If I want a glass of wine, I have it!” 

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