Published January 18, 2013, Pawtucket Times
Just barely holding onto the record for being the nation’s oldest person for about two weeks, Mamie Rearden, of Edgefield, a 114-year-old South Carolina woman, died on Jan. 2, just three weeks after a fall broke her hip. The amazing thing though, is for how long she was so healthy and living independently. According to recently published research, most people who reach the age of 110 years and beyond, only spend, on average the last 5 years of their incredibly long lives with age-related diseases.
According to the Associated Press (AP), the Gerontology Research Group, an organization verifying age information for the Guinness World Records, noted that Rearden’s Sept. 7, 1898, birth was recorded and therefore verified in the 1900 U.S. Census, making her the nation’s oldest living person after last month’s passing of 115-year-old Dina Manfredini of Iowa. Before Rearden died, she was more than a year younger than the world’s oldest person, 115-year-old Jiroemon Kimura of Japan.
Rearden, married to her husband for 59 years until his death in 1979, raised 11 children, 10 of whom are alive. The former teacher and housewife first learned how to drive a car at age 65. At this time she worked for an Edgefield County program locating children whose parents were keeping them out of school, reported AP.
Studying the Nation’s Oldest Citizens
Dr. Thomas Perls, a geriatrician who heads the Boston University-based New England Centenarian Study (NECS), considers Rearden’s longevity to be a very rare occurrence. She was one of around 70 supercentenarians (people who have reached age 110) living in this country, he says.
Almost 20 years ago, when Perls’ longitudinal study began, about 1 per 10,000 people in the United States survived to age 100. However, he notes that they are now more common at a rate of 1 per 5,000.
“Now most people think that getting to your eighties is expected,” says Dr. Perls. Simply put, more Americans are now living longer today than in previous generations because the high childhood mortality rates in the early 1900s have been slashed due to hugely improved public health measures like clean water, vaccinations and a safe food supply combined with a more educated population and improved socioeconomic conditions, he noted.
Meanwhile, vaccinations for older people, effective antibiotics and medications for what have become chronic rather than acute lethal diseases, as well as curative surgeries are now markedly improving middle-age people’s chances of living to even older ages, adds Dr. Perls.
Finding the Secrets of Longevity
Dr. Perls says his passion for working with the nation’s oldest began when at 16 years old he worked as an orderly in a nursing home. In 1986, he received his medical degree from the University of Rochester, later a Masters from the Harvard School of Public Health. His specialization in geriatrics ultimately would propel him into a life-long interest in finding the secrets as to why people successfully age well and live for more than a century.
Born in Palo Alto, California, Dr. Perls later moved to Colorado and is now residing in Boston. A professor at Boston University School of Medicine, Dr. Perls, board certified in internal medicine and geriatric medicine, has coauthored a book for the lay public, entitled, Living to 100, co-edited an academic book, and penned 106 juried articles. He is the author of the online Living to 100 Life Expectancy Calculator. It uses the most current and carefully research medical and scientific data to estimate how old you will live to be (www.livingto100.com) and provides some general advice according to your answers to about 40 questions that take about 7 minutes to complete.
Initially at Harvard University, the NECS later relocated to Boston University School of Medicine, giving his longevity initiative “room to grow,” says Perls, who is NECS’s founding director. Today this demographic initiative, now considered to be the world’s largest study of centenarians and supercentenarians, is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), private foundations and “cherished” individual donors, he says. Study participants and their families fill out health and family history questionnaires, and provide a blood sample for studying their genes.
Along with the NECS, Dr. Perls also directs the Boston-based study center of the multi-center and international Long Life Family Study (LLFS) which is a study of families that have multiple members living to extreme old age. Both initiatives are enabling researchers to find out how and why centenarians and their children, who are in their seventies and eighties, live the vast majority of their lives disability-free.
As to those who participate in his NECS and LLFS initiatives, the youngest is about 45 years old (a very young child of a centenarian) and the oldest ever enrolled was 119 years old, the second oldest person in the world, ever, states Perls. Since he begun the NECS, out of 2,200 participants, 1,200 were age 100 and over, he added. The remaining participants were children of centenarians or in the study’s control group. “Because of their ages, most of these folks have now passed away,” he said, adding that at any one time about 10% of the total centenarians in the study are alive.
Unraveling the Data
During his long career studying centenarians, the research findings indicate that it is common for centenarians to have brothers and sisters who also live to be very old. “Exceptional longevity runs strong in families,” he notes.
Dr. Perls’ research also debunked long-held beliefs that the longer you live, the sicker you get. But even if centenarians were afflicted by multiple age-related diseases in their nineties, on average 90 percent functioned independently at the average age of 93 years, he says. Centenarians living to age 100 were found to have avoided age-related disabilities as well as diseases until, on average, their last 5 years.
While a healthy life style is definitely important to living into ones’ eighties with much of that time spent in good health, Dr. Perls states that having the right genes becomes more and more crucial for living to a much older age.
Research indicates that living to your mid-eighties is 70-80% environmental and habits and 30-20% genes. Seventh Day Adventists were found to have the longest average life expectancy in the United States, that is 88 years. Most of that longevity was likely due to their healthy habits which include being vegetarian, regularly exercising, not smoking or drinking alcohol and also doing things that decrease the effect of stress.
However, many Americans do just the opposite, with unhealthy diets, not exercising and still, many people smoke, notes Dr. Perls. So it is not surprising that on average, Americans die 8-10 years earlier than Seventh Day Adventists, at the average age of about 80 years. (According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in 2010, the U.S. life expectancy was 75 years for males and 80 years for females.)
“We should take advantage of our genes and not fight them,” Perls says, by adopting healthier lifestyles.
Perls believes that DNA research on very old people should for now not focus on identifying genes that predict diseases. Rather the findings in the near future might just offer clues to how some genes slow the aging process and protect people from age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and heart attacks. Such discoveries could lead to the development of drugs that protect against multiple chronic diseases.
A Final Note…
Make working to create a healthier life style a top priority on your New Year’s resolution list. This effort might just ratchet up your life expectancy into the mid-eighties and if you have longevity in your family, even longer. Why not stop smoking, and watch your drinking, too. Even make exercise, weight training and keeping your mind active as part of your daily routine. Combine these lifestyle changes with better eating habits, meditating or yoga, or even doing low impact exercises like tai chi, and you’re on your way to increased longevity.
Ultimately, a healthier life style along with good genes may well help you increase the odds of living to 100 and beyond.
If you know anyone who is 105 years old or older, please mention the New England Centenarian Study to them and/or their family. The Study can be reached at (888) 333-6327 or you can go online http://www.bumc.bu.edu/centenarian for more information.
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.