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The Secrets of the Centenarians: How to Live to 100!


When Helen Boardman was still a girlish 99, she fell in love again--with a younger man.

"I robbed the cradle," laughs the trim centenarian, who married a man twenty years her junior for "companionship," she says slyly. "Bill was lonesome---I wasn't!--but I enjoyed his company and we had the same interests. So we fell in love."

It didn't hurt that Bill Boardman had the same last name.

"That was a coincidence,"adds Bill. "She kept getting my checks, I got her bills, so out of necessity, we had to get married!"

Nowadays, the twosome often perform together in plays at Friendship Village, an independent living facility outside of Chicago where they share a one-bedroom apartment. Helen writes, directs, and stars in the productions.

"I don't get nervous...I'm over all that," she shrugs nonchalantly.

She's 107. He's 86.

Still romance after eight years? "A little," Helen laughs, "when he's real nice to me, which is most of the time. He's a good guy."

"To be perfectly frank, " notes Bill, "Helen doesn't seem 20 years older at all. She's never acted like an old lady. Last New Year's Eve, we stayed up until midnight dancing. I think she's maintained her youth quite well!"

Indeed, decked out in pearls and a smart black-and-white checkerboard dress, nestled into a couch in her living room, the woman born in June, l896, says: "I feel young inside...I'd say about 60." She doesn't even dye her still-auburn hair. "My mother and father didn't go gray either," she says with pride. " I guess I'm drinking from the Fountain of Youth."

"Sometimes," she adds, miffed by those around her in their 80's and 90's who complain about their health, "I feel like a teenager in an old folk's home!" An avid reader, book reviewer, and world traveler, with 12 trips to Europe under her belt, Helen also recites poetry, gardens, flower arranges, and lifts weights daily!

"Just one or two or pounds each arm," she demurs of her bicep curls.

Her secret of longevity? "Strawberry shortcake!" she smiles sweetly. "One big piece, every day."

* * * * *

The Centenarian Jackpot

The remarkable Helen Boardman is not alone. In the U.S. today, there are more than 50,000 centenarians, the nation's fastest growing age group. Although the current life expectancy for the average American is 76.9 years, by the year 2050 there will be an estimated one million people living to 100. That's substantial progress. In 1900, the average life span extended to age 47. In 1800, it was a mere 30 years-old.

"The secret to reaching 100 nowadays is a combination of genetics, lifestyle choices, mental acuity, and just plain luck!" notes Thomas T. Perls, M.D., author of Living to 100: Lessons in Living to Your Maximum Potential at Any Age (Basic Books).

This landmark book, written with Margery Hutter Silver, Ed.D. is based on the ongoing New England Centenarian Study, begun in l994, which reveals that old age can be filled with lucidity, mobility, and good health.1

"Of the 1,500 centenarians in our study," says Perls, "a great majority were in terrific shape the vast majority of their lives. Rather than accumulating damage, they're actually shedding it."

How so? "Most people believe the older you get, the sicker you get, a very pessimistic point of view. The centenarians we've met demonstrate the opposite: the older they get, the healthier they've been. I call them centenarian jackpots. From a medical standpoint, they've been able to markedly delay or altogether escape diseases that we normally associate with aging--like heart disease, cancer, stroke, or Alzheimer's.

"I haven't had anything," notes Helen Boardman. No diseases. No medications. "I take an aspirin occasionally," she admits, for hip pain.

"Freed from any major illness," says Dr. Perls, "many centenarians like Helen are cooking their own meals, balancing checkbooks, driving their own cars, lifting weights, playing bridge, and reading novels, and socializing with family and friends.

Some are even competing in the Senior Olympics. Take, for example, another remarkable centenarian, Marguerite Kuekelhan, born in August l897. At age 105, she's the world record holder (in her age class) for shotput! Last July, at the Washington State Senior Games in Olympia, the 97-pound athlete could be seen hurling a 6 1/2 pound metal ball 6 feet into the air

Her secret? "I think it's the spirit within you," she says crisply. Being 90 or 100 is no excuse for inactivity? "Heavens no! I try not to let age keep me down at all.This year I'm trying to break my record and make it better," says 4-foot 10 inch dynamo, who hopes to beat her best practice throw at 7'6".

Is all this fun? "No," she groans. "The ball is very heavy; I'd rather bounce a rubber ball." In fact, she recently played exhibition basketball against the Seattle Supersonics, warning the crowd: "Before I get started, I haven't dribbled in about 100 years!"

That's for sure. A widow after 55 years of marriage, Marguerite lives alone in a tidy apartment in an independent living facility in Olympia, does her own cooking and cleaning, always uses the stairs, and does her leg and ankle exercises each morning to maintain strength and balance for the shotput.

"And I still drive," she says with pride, "though I'm giving that up when I turn 106 this August. I just feel as if my reactions are not as quick as they used to be. But I still see very very well and I hear well too--though I had to get one of those things! [a hearing aid].* * * * *Genetic Booster Rockets

What in the world is going on here? A woman getting married at 99 and starring in plays? Another shotputting and dribbling a basketball? What Fountain are they drinking from?

"These centenarians," notes Dr. Perls, "are blessed with what I call 'genetic booster rockets', a built-in biological advantage which boosts them above the norm. Anyone living to extreme old age has this genetic edge. They were endowed with the 'Rolls Royces' of genes, what scientists call 'super genes,'' which act as longevity insurance. These genes slow down aging and reduce the risk of contracting diseases. Centenarians in our study who lived to 105 usually died of pneumonia, or even a household accident--having never developed any chronic disease of aging. For sure, extreme old age runs in families."

Both Helen and Marguerite's parents lived into their 80's, with close relatives of both topping 102.

Even with average genes, however, it's possible to extend longevity more than ever before, says Dr. Perls: "Not long ago, 85 was considered ancient. Now it's relatively easy to achieve that age if you play your cards right. It all boils down to four simple things: not smoking, maintaining a healthy diet, strength training, and avoiding excessive sun exposure and alcohol. Those are the biggies."

One such example is the nation's oldest man, 113-year-old Fred Hale, born in New Sharon, Maine on December 1, l890, when Benjamin Harrison was President.

Up until age 107, the retired railway clerk lived alone in a three-story farmhouse in Maine, traipsing up and down stairs, shoveling snow off the roof, chopping wood, hunting, fishing, mowing grass, gardening, and beekeeping--producing his own honey and bee pollen, a lifelong passion.

He was still driving his own car, making him the oldest American ever to hold a driver's license according to the Guinness Book of Records.

At 113, Hale is in a special class unto himself, considered a "super-centenarian," defined as anyone living 110 or longer. There is one super-centenarian per million in the population, a total of 260 in the U.S. today. "We don't yet know what sets these people apart," says Dr. Perls. "They have no major illnesses, and even their hearing and vision don't usually deteriorate until their late 90's."

Hale, both of whose parents lived to 91, has, in recent years, beat pneumonia and hip replacement and had cataract surgery. "No diseases, no nothing," he exclaims, "except for some arthritis," which is cured, he believes, with a teaspoon of bee pollen taken with each meal.

Although a few falls eventually forced him into the Syracuse Home, a retirement community in Syracuse, N.Y., he continued using a walker until age 112, hiking half a mile a day. His mental acuity and lively sense of humor remain undimmed.

How did he survive so long? "Oh, I don't know, punishment, I guess!" he jokes.

When reflecting on it, he credits his longevity to a good diet, lots of rest (up at 6 a.m., to bed at 8 p.m.) never smoking, and keeping busy.

"The secret is work," he declares. "Don't sit around. Keep a good attitude. I always loved to work. When I went home, I got five hours sleep, and then went to work in my garden. I can still stoop down and pick up a handkerchief better than most of them!"

* * * * *

Use It Or Lose It

Until Fred Hale was 111, he studied the Reader's Digest 'Word Power' vocabulary exercise religiously, testing himself on new words weekly. His work ethic and mental curiosity point to another key ingredient in the longevity marathon: exercising the brain.

"It's definitely use it or lose it," says Dr. Perls. "The key to mental vigor is continually learning something new, which builds fresh connections between brain cells.

"For instance, crossword puzzles (verbal functions), bridge (memory functions) and intricate jigsaw puzzles (visual-spatial functions) all keep the mind sharp. Equally beneficial is painting,writing poetry, making sculpture, or learning a new language. We've also found that music is a powerful vaccine against dementia and the onset of brain disease. I knew a 102-year-old who was never in her room at the nursing home because she was too busy playing Mozart and Chopin recitals in the music room! Doing any of these things allows you to maintain attention and memory, and the ability to plan, organize, and exercise self-care.

"I think the mind has a lot to do with the way you feel," says Helen Boardman, until recently a voracious reader who spent a lifetime writing book reviews for libraries and turning biographies into plays. Two years ago, she even completed her memoirs, titled: "105 and Counting," before her vision began to fail.

"Staying home and watching TV was never my pleasure at all," says Helen, who does tune into C-Span for the book reviews. She believes the secret of longevity is: "Curiosity. I love to see the world and I love people. Everybody has some good in them. If you're curious about things, you'll search them out."

She marvels at the technological miracles spread over the three centuries which her lifetime has spanned, yet she recounts, with equal pleasure, her days in a horse and buggy: "I drove to high school every day in my buggy. Maudie was a retired beige race horse and I loved her! When we got our first automobile, she was put out to pasture. We accepted the car right away, sure--but isn't a horse more fun?"

Fun counts in Helen's world. She even tried white-water rafting at 90: "The ticket seller said that the only requirement was that you had to be at least eight years old. I told myself: 'If an 8-year-old can do it, I can!" * * * * *"Good Training" and The Centenarian Personality

Although many may wonder if diet has much to do with the remarkable health of centenarians, "it's impossible to know because dietary habits have changed so dramatically over the years," says Dr. Perls. Most processed foods did not exist during the centenarians' formative years; preserving was done by pickling, smoking, and salting; and fresh fruit was less available. "Some ate very little red meat, others ate it every day with bacon and eggs!--and both types lived to 100." Nowadays, however, there's little doubt, says Perls, that "good training," -- exercise and proper diet--contribute mightily to living to 100.

"The secret of living a long life is lifestyle as much as anything," thinks Helen Boardman. "I've always taken exercise, I don't go for liquor, and I never smoked.

"I'm not fond of red meat at all," she continues. "I prefer vegetables, fruit, chicken and fish. And when I'm not feeling too well, I have oatmeal. Growing up on the family farm, we always had it in the morning, and I still love it!" Chocolate cake? "Unacceptable but delicious!" she laughs.

Fred Hale, at 113, also eats moderately and drinks no coffee or tea. His diet? "I eat off my fork just the same as everybody else!" he teases.

"I always eat rolled oats with honey for breakfast," he explains. "Lunch is meat and potatoes. And at night, I eat very light--cottage cheese, apple sauce and toast. That's it."

Athletic competitor Marguerite eats "very light, which is easier on the stomach," principally vegetables and fruits: "And I don't use any milk products. I like soy milk instead. It seems to be easier to digest." No desserts, she says. Such virtue! "Well, look what the result is!"

Beyond genetics, lifestyle, and mental acuity, there is another profound, yet intangible, factor that influences anyone's ability to live to 100. Dr. Perls refers to it as the 'centenarian personality'--a stress-reducing mindset that combines positive thinking with a fighting spirit.

"Inevitably, most centenarians are upbeat, funny,and gregarious," he observes: "It's very rare I meet a curmudgeon centenarian! They're not complainers. In our personality testing, they score very low in 'neuroticism,' the expression of negative emotions like fear, anxiety, guilt, anger, or depression. They're positive and optimistic in their attitude and bounce back easily from life's crises because they don't internalize thoughts or emotions that cause stress."

"I believe in positive thinking," booms the athletic Marguerite, a founding and lifelong member of Unity Church in Olympia. "Mental attitude," says Marguerite, who meditates daily to take herself into "a quiet place" is exceedingly important. "I was always trying throughout my life to be positive, but I didn't get to the peak until now....it was a matter of growth."

Her close friend and shotput promoter, John Vlastelia, the president of the Washington State Senior Games, adds this: "When Marguerite reads in the newspaper that 'Flu season in full bloom,' she always says 'I am not going to get sick,' and literally wills herself to good health."

"We know," says Dr. Perls, "that stress--internalizing depression, anger, worry, fear--is an age accelerator. We've found that centenarians are able to shake stress off their backs like a duck shakes off water. Many have experienced great losses and hardships in their lives, yet they'd been able to recover quickly and move on."

* * * * *

A Realistic View of Death

Perhaps some of these centenarians will reach even the grand old age achieved by Mme. Jeanne Calment, the oldest living person in recorded history, who died in l997, at age 122.

"The chances of living to 122," says Dr. Perls, "is 1 in 6 billion. Although I think the human life span could be eventually expanded into the 130's, for most of us, reaching ages 100-105 is a reasonable number to hope for."

Centenarians like Helen, Marguerite, and Fred, thriving in the present as they do, think very little about their limited futures.

"Death is something that is coming," says Marguerite matter-of-factly, priming for competition this July at the shotput: "I accept it as part of my experience in life, but I don't think about it at all."

As for Fred Hale, every time his physical therapist says 'see you tomorrow,' the 113-year-old answers: "Perhaps! I'm not making long-term plans!"

His attitude toward death? "What took you so long!" he quips merrily. Then, on a serious note, he adds: "Can't do anything about it. Why be afraid?"

This attitude is typical, says Dr. Perls: "I haven't met any centenarian who feared death. If anything, they're very thankful for every day they have and they just hope for more."

As for Helen, "sometimes," she smiles, "I get so sleepy. Anytime I sit down, I just close my eyes. My daughter was talking about death the other day and said she can't wait to find out what happens. Well, I feel pretty much the same way. I have no fear of death. It's just another phase when we're finished with our work. I'm content to stop anytime now."

But she brightens at the thought of her younger husband, Bill:

"He's my incentive!" she says merrily. "My children are all independent...they don't need me. Bill does. He needs someone to boss him! I look forward to what is yet to come."

All in all, is being 107 a blessing or burden?

"Both," she answers calmly. "It's a burden because I was a voracious reader until I became nearly blind. So I've lost the thing that I enjoyed the most, though I can listen to books on tape. But it's a blessing because of the things I still can do. Here's my poem: "My hearing and vision--neither one are very good; and I sometimes stumble when I walk; but when you ask me any question about my life, I sure am glad I still can talk!"

"So I'm an OPTIMIST," she declares in parting, "grateful for everything. Every day. At dinner, every bite is exciting because I never know what I'm going to eat. The cup is always full. I have never been in want. Everything is good. Nothing bad.

"After reading my memoirs," she smiles, "my nephew asked me if there was anything bad in my life, and I said: 'If there was, I forgot it!"

* * * * *

Side-Bar RX

In a culture obsessed by youth, "people have got to realize," says Dr. Perls, "that your 70's and 80's can be the most fantastic time of your life. I see people go after second or third careers, or volunteer activities, enhance relationships with their families, while their experience and wisdom is at their peaks. Life is their oyster. And it still can be at 100!"

Here are a few health secrets for anyone on the road to 100, a prescription from Dr. Perls, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Boston School of Medicine, and geriatrician at Boston Medical Center.

Age accelerators to avoid: smoking, sun exposure, excessive alcohol , high-fat diet, ionizing radiation, toxic chemicals, excessive risk-taking, and mental stress. Make fitness, laughter, and relaxing recreation a priority in your life!

Age de-accelerators: Exercise (weight training, aerobics, meditation, yoga); a diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, with a minimum of meats and sweets, processed foods, and animal fat or butter.

Supplements: To prevent arteriosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's Parkinson's, vision problems, cancers, and rheumatoid arthritis, I recommend taking:

*Vitamin E [400-800 IU per day] to prevent and delay cognitive deterioration;

*Vitamin B complex (with folate)

*Calcium with Vitamin D (to decrease the risk of osteoporosis)

*Omega Fatty Acids #3 and #6 (derived from flax seed oil or fish oil, availablein capsules, 1,000 mg daily]

*Selenium [100-200 mcg per day].

*Baby aspirin (81 mg) each day which reduces the risk of heart attack by 50%.

*Green tea--noted by the Chinese culture for 3000 years as a health booster.

Author's note: Since these interviews were conducted, Fred Hale, documented as the world's oldest man, died at age 113 on November 20, 2004. He was physically active and mentally alert right up until the end says his son, an octegenarian.

Bestselling author GLENN PLASKIN is one of the nation's leading psychology reporters and celebrity interviewers. His specialty today is interviewing the nation's top experts in spirituality, motivation, happiness, and self-improvement. A contributing editor at FAMILY CIRCLE, the world' s largest women's magazine, he is available for TV, radio, and print interviews. He can be contacted directly at: glenfamilycircle@aol.com. He also coaches those interested in writing articles and books.

He is the author of two books--HOROWITZ--the biography of Vladimir Horowitz--and TURNING POINT: Pivotal Moments in the Lives of America's Celebrities. His celebrity interviews have appeared in Family Circle, US, Ladies Home Journal,Playboy, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, and more than 50 U.S. newspapers.


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