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Redefining longevity: the new centenarian spirit

The US centenarian population is doubling every decade – and they're redefining aging and longevity.

By Chris LandersCorrespondent / April 17, 2010

As a model of longevity, Elsa Hoffman 102 – with her great-grandaughters Blair (l) and Elsa Textor-Black – says there's nothing "I say I can’t go to or don’t want to do." This centenarian's version of slowing down in the past decade is to limit her travel to places near her Florida home – South America, for example.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Garnett Beckman says she'd prefer to just be known as a little old lady who walks. For a long time, she didn't tell people her age. It proved to be an impediment when she wanted to hike the Grand Canyon at age 75 – no one would take her.

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"Nobody would go with me. They didn't think I could do it," recalls Ms. Beckman, now 102. "I was afraid I couldn't do it."

So she got up early, told her son she was taking a trip with friends, and hopped a bus by herself, hiking nine miles down Bright Angel Trail and overnighting at Phantom Ranch on the other side of the Colorado River. She woke up early and hiked back to catch the early bus. When her son picked her up in Phoenix, she told him where she'd been.

"He almost wrecked the car," she says.

She was just getting started. She hiked the canyon again a few weeks later, and her son came with her. She'd make the trip more than 20 times in the following decades.

Though she discontinued her Grand Canyon hikes when she was 91, Beckman still walks closer to home, sometimes to the senior center where she volunteers to "help with the old folks" and teach bridge on weekends. She's used to people asking her age, but she doesn't let it slow her down much. She runs with a younger crowd, she says: "My companions were always a generation behind me."

As a centenarian, Beckman has achieved what some demographers project most kids today will achieve: to live past 100 with mental and physical health largely intact.

Medical science attributes increasing longevity to a complex interplay of diet, exercise, and genetics. But attitude, researchers suggest, is another factor we can learn from our elders: Act as if you're still living, rather than dying.

It's what one elder advocate calls "the centenarian spirit."

"The emergence of the oldest old, and the problems that surround it, are among the most important social issues of the 20th century," says Peter Martin, a gerontologist and medical researcher at Iowa State University in Ames. "While health and genetics and everything are important, there are also important psychological components ... people we talk to seem to suggest that they've worked pretty hard at it – because they enjoyed it."

Increasing longevity will have broad economic effects. But the implication for the individual is a wide-open question: How are we to live these bonus years we never expected to have?

"If progress in reducing mortality continues at the same pace as it has over the past two centuries, which is a matter of debate, then in countries with high life expectancies most children born since the year 2000 will celebrate their 100th birthday – in the twenty-second century," wrote James W. Vaupel, a Duke University (N.C.) demographer in a March 25 Nature magazine review of current studies. "Longer lifespans will alter the way individuals want to allocate time during their lives and will require radical revision of employment, retirement, health, education and other policies."