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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
“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
“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
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
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
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
How did he survive so long? “Oh, I don’t know, punishment, I guess!” he
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
“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
“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
“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
“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.
“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!”
* * * * *
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
*Vitamin E [400-800 IU per day] to prevent and delay cognitive
*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
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
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