Super-oldies. Would you like to be one?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

November 2007

Are you curious to know what life — especially yours — will be like when you reach 100 or beyond? Supercentenarians, persons who have lived beyond the age of 110, have seen astonishing technological advances and social changes.

When Yone Minagawa was born in Japan in 1893 her parents could not have known that 114 years later the Guinness Book of World Records would name her to be the world's oldest living person. During Yone's birth year Wilbur and Orville Wright were repairing bicycles; Henry Ford and Carl Benz were perfecting their automobile designs and Thomas Edison introduced the world to motion pictures.

Japan has a higher percentage of centenarians than any other country. Tomoji Tanabe, at 111, became the world's oldest man. That title changes hands quickly but it's a good bet that a Japanese individual on Okinawa will hold the title, however briefly, from time to time. Okinawa has more centenarians per capita — 54 per 100,000 people — than any place on earth and about 5 times as many as the United States. What is more notable is that its very oldest inhabitants are vigorous and strong and they know the names of their great-great-grandchildren. Indeed, some Okinawans who are nearing the century mark claim to be fathering children of their own.

Supercentenarians don't always agree on what got them there. At the age of 116, Maria Capovilla of Ecuador had never tasted an alcoholic drink; Lucy d'Abreu lived to 113 and attributed her long life to a daily dose of brandy. Hendrikje van Andel-Schippers advised wannabe-centenarians to eat pickled herring. George Johnson, California's last surviving veteran of World War One enjoyed a diet of junk food, his favorites being waffles and sausage. He died after a short bout of pneumonia and at autopsy he had no sign of heart disease.

Except for junk-food George, those who live well past 100 do share some characteristics that even those of us with ordinary genes could benefit from. They maintained normal weight throughout life and enjoyed a relatively high level of physical activity for their age right up to the last few days or weeks. Okinawans may be the role models for calorie restriction, getting by on only about 1200 calories a day. Such a feeding regimen results in a longer — much longer — lifespan for laboratory animals that range from mice to monkeys. That sparse diet is extremely varied, however, and consists mostly of a wide selection of plant foods, a factor that some nutritionists claim is a major reason for their long life.

There's a difference, of course, between living longer and lasting longer. Scientists who study aging find that many of these super-oldies have avoided lifestyle-destroying dementia, painful spinal osteoporosis and the after-effects of stroke by continuing to exercise both the body and the mind.

Being sociable and having a good sense of humor are known to contribute to longevity. Perhaps the best example was Jeanne Calment of France. As she neared her ultimate age of 122 someone asked her what she thought the rest of her life would be like. Her reply? "Short. Very short."

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.