Redefining longevity: the new centenarian spirit

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

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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
Garnett Beckman, 102, doesn't want to be defined for her longevity as a centenarian but as a little old lady who walks. She hiked the Grand Canyon each year from age 75 to 91. She still walks avidly around Scottsdale, Ariz, where she volunteers to “help with the old folks” at her senior center and teaches bridge.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
For Sam Katzoff, 100, extreme longevity has allowed him time to focus. A former NASA scientist, this centenarian says the bonus years have given him an opportunity to solve a scientific problem that stymied him and classmate in their years at Johns Hopkins University. Baltimore
Research by Leigh Montgomery and Elizabeth Ryan, Graphic by Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Source: Kannisto-Thatcher Database, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research

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.

"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."

Indeed, observes Meg Guroff, an editor at AARP The Magazine, "We're already seeing those implications in people much younger. We have many more readers who are 50 years old ... going back to school, adopting children, starting a second or third or fourth career."

• • •

As census workers fan out to take stock of the nation this year, they expect to find continued explosive growth in the centenarian population. Between 1990 and 2000, Americans 100 or older increased by 35 percent – from 37,306 to 50,454. The US Census projects that this group will increase more than 50 percent in this year's count, to 79,000. And a recent study in the North American Actuarial Journal projected 60 percent growth each decade of the coming century. The United Nations expects similar trends worldwide, estimating that by 2050, 1 in every 5,000 people will be over 100 years old, with China, the United States, Japan, and India having the largest populations of centenarians.

Today's 100-year-old has lived through two World Wars, the Depression, and every president since Teddy Roosevelt. What surprises some researchers is that 30 percent of them have done so with their health and wits intact. Something as simple (or complicated) as attitude can make the difference in living to 100 or beyond, and perhaps tip the scales toward a happy, productive second century.

These people are redefining aging as positive models of longevity, says Lynn Adler, who runs the Arizona-based nonprofit National Centenarian Awareness Project. She makes it her business to find as many centenarians as she can, profiling them on her website and acting as a publicist and cheerleader for them. Her project has its roots in an experience Ms. Adler had as a teenager in the company of her 60-something grandmother.

The two had gone shopping at a department store, recalls Adler: "When [my grandmother] went to make the purchase, the salesperson said to me 'How does she want to pay for this?' I said, 'Why don't you ask her?' I was just a kid. I was furious. She was just so condescending to my grandmother." Later, she adds, "my grandmother leaned over to me and said, 'No one wants to talk with you when you get old.' "

But Adler wants to talk to you when you get old. In her lifelong crusade against ageism, she likes to say that "centenarians are the celebrities of aging." Since starting her nonprofit in 1985, Adler has shined a light on the lives of active centenarians. By "active," she means they have "the mental acuity to continue to enjoy whatever it is that brings meaning to one's life.

"I wanted to help dispel some of the stereotypes people have of old age as a time of disinterest and decrepitude," she says. "I thought that by showing some positive models we could influence the other issues – the stereotypes and the ageism, and give people some positives to counter the prevailing view."

The "centenarian spirit," says Adler, is a group of traits associated with exceptionally long, active lives, including courage and a sense of humor. But it's attitude, too: "It's the remarkable ability to renegotiate life at every turn, to accept the losses that come with aging, and not let it stop them.... It's not just how long you live, but how well."

Medical researchers do see a connection between attitude and the ability to live an active life, says Mr. Martin: "It's easier to see that than to document it. Most of the research looks at health issues and longevity, but what gets people there often works very differently. I think through our studies on personality and engagement and mental health [there is] some good evidence that ... staying active and being involved is a major contributor to longevity.... They may be 100, but they're not finished yet."

For example, in a study of centenarians published last year in the journal Adult Development, Martin and his coauthors found that balancing a checkbook correlates with a better mental state. "It seems like a simple task for us," he says, "but as a lifelong engagement task ... it's a good indicator – not saying, 'Well, I'll let other people do that,' but saying, "It's important to me to know what my balance is.' "

Social engagement is important, he adds, but so are the tasks that go along with it: "[I]f you give a public speech or presentation, or volunteer, it's more than just standing in front of people and talking – you have to prepare for it. You have to get up in the morning and get yourself ready … you draw from a lot of different resources that keep challenging you."

• • •

If ther's a spokesperson for the social centenarian, it's Elsa Hoffmann. At 102, her schedule is booked solid. After her regular Monday lunch and card game, and before a movie with her Women's League, Ms. Hoffmann takes time to discuss the past 100 years over the phone. Her version of slowing down in the past decade is to limit her travel to places near her Florida home – South America, for example. And, she's contemplating going to Russia this spring.

Hoffmann spent decades running a resort with her husband – she handled the entertainment. "From childhood, I was always one to organize parties and games and things like that," she says. "When I have days off, I catch up on my bills and stocks…. I don't think there's anything I say I can't go to or don't want to do."

Her granddaughter, Sharon Textor-Black, wrote a book about Hoffmann's strategy for active aging, "Elsa's Own Blue Zone."

"One of the things I think is helpful for other people to know [is that] she really enjoys being around other people," Ms. Textor-Black says. "I think that's important. As some people get older, they let themselves get housebound, but – whether through church or clubs or even the Internet – there are just so many ways to connect with other people."

Hoffmann agrees. "Every stage of life has its challenges and its beauties, and different forms of entertainment, from childhood on. There's no reason not to find things to do in life."

• • •

As a 101-year-old porbate lawyer, Jack Borden often finds himself dispensing retirement and aging advice to people decades his junior.

"The reason I keep working, I think, is to stay alive," he says. When a February snowstorm in his hometown of Weatherford, Texas, kept him home, he adds, "I was climbing the walls."

In 2008, Mr. Borden was nominated the "Outstanding Oldest Worker" in Texas from a group called Experience Works. It surprised him, but it surprised him even more when he was awarded the 2009 national title.

Experience Works is a nonprofit that provides training and employment services for 30,000 over-55 workers nationwide. Trends toward later retiring, combined with a poor economy, means their services are in demand among the elderly.

"Some are low-income or nearly homeless, and they didn't expect to be in that situation," says Lita Levine Kleger, a vice president at Experience Works. "Some had successful careers; some had already retired; some have just had a whole sea change and they're faced with having to go back to work and learn new skills. It creates tremendous challenges, but I think it can create, really, a new beginning for those folks."

The group uses people like Borden as an example. "If you're 70 or 68 or 80 or even 90 [and] you're not quite confident in your ability to offer things," Ms. Kleger says, seeing a 100-year-old do it has got to open your mind.

Indeed, for some people, the extra years bring focus. Sam Katzoff, who describes himself modestly as "good at math," was trained as a chemist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the 1930s and was hired as a physicist at the agency that was to become NASA.

He retired in the 1970s, he says, when "we were interested in looking for life on Mars. I guess people are still looking for it."

But Mr. Katzoff, now 100 and living in an apartment by himself in a retirement community north of Baltimore, has devoted a lot of his recent thinking to an unsolved problem from his grad school days.

While his hearing is not good, and his voice threatens to be drowned out by the soft explosions of the small oxygen machine next to his overstuffed chair, Katzoff's bookshelf is stocked with science texts testifying mental pursuits such as the problem of a friend and fellow classmate at Hopkins who was unable to consistently reproduce a chemical reaction in an experiment. All these years later, Katzoff thinks he has worked out the missing variable: The lab was poorly lit. During the day, when the sun streamed through the windows, the reaction would occur. On darker days and at night it failed.

"It was the sunlight," he says, wistfully noting that he had the bonus years to discover it, but that his classmate, a friend since seventh grade, "didn't make 100."

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