Living to be 100, not so Rare

-By Seth Daniel

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Ida Block can't hold back her smile after blowing out the candle on her birthday cake. Ida turned 100 two weeks ago.

Living to the rip old age of 100 used to carry an elite badge of accomplishment.

It was an elite club, and those who turned 100-years-old – known as centenarians – often found themselves to be alone in that club, with all of their friends and family members having died long before.

Nowadays, the club seems to be getting a little larger as centenarians are not as rare as they once were. Combined with better health care, better nutrition and safer surroundings, those with the genetics to stretch their lifetime to the limits are becoming more prevalent.

Even in Revere, at the Prospect House, there are three 100-year-olds living at that facility right now. The Satter House just had a celebration for 100-year-old Ida Block two weeks ago, and there are countless centenarians living with family or in their homes around the city.

“Pretty soon turning 100 is just going to be like turning 80,” said Tammy Sullivan, program director at the Prospect House. “One of them told me the secret of living to 100 is taking good care of yourself and your attitude towards the world. One woman said that it was probably because her mom made her take Caster Oil every day.”

Mayor Tom Ambrosino – who hands out citations to those who turn 100 – said that he sees more and more centenarians in Revere.

“I have actually done a lot more pictures with 100-year-olds in the last three or four years than I did in my first five years,” he said. “I have to say most people I’ve seen turning 100 now are pretty sharp and they’re in good shape mentally and physically.”

And even here at the Journal, where we have made a practice for decades of writing stories or running photos of those who turn 100, we have seen a dramatic uptick in those submitting stories or photos of those who have hit the 100 mark.

Statistics from the U.S. Census Department even back up the notion. Though it’s no secret that people are living longer, it is quite a revelation to note that turning 100 is now like it once was to turn 80.

In 2000, there were 50,454 centenarians living in the U.S. That is compared to 2,300 in 1950 – a gigantic increase for that 50-year period.

And the most current number in 2000 increased dramatically since 1980, when there were only 15,000 estimated centenarians.

The most recent Census 2010 numbers have not been released yet to show how many centenarians are now living in the U.S., but those numbers should be out soon, and they’ll be very interesting to note.

Nevertheless, the Census Bureau has predicted in a special report on centenarians done in 1990, that there will be 834,000 centenarians living in the U.S. in 2050; and those are the conservative estimates.

Dr. Anne Fabiny, chair of the Geriatrics Department at the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) and a specialist at Revere Family Health, said that there are a number of reasons why centenarians are showing up in greater numbers.

She said that the major reasons are better public sanitation, better overall nutrition and better public safety.

Many current centenarians have avoided the dangers that were prevalent in the past, such as farm accidents.

Likewise, the advent of antibiotics as a medicine when they were younger has also helped.

“All of those people who now are turning 100 didn’t die of childhood infectious diseases because they were treated with antibiotics,” said Fabiny. “That was a very common way to die when they were very young.”

She also said – along the same lines – that medical care in general has improved vastly as 100-year-olds have aged, and it has been to their benefit.

“The average life expectancy is still way under 100, but if you look at the growing numbers of those who are turning 100, certainly the medical care that has been part of their lives has allowed them to live longer,” she said.

However, she warned that people should not think that everyone has the mustard to live to 100. It is not just a matter of staying healthy and exercising regularly.

It is a matter of genetics.

“People who have made it to 100 have some genetic advantages; they are not attacked by the diseases others are,” she said. “To be older than 100 means you aren’t like the rest of us. There are some genes that allow people to live longer. Usually those genes are found in families…If you look at the families, generally those who are 100 will come from families who have long lives.”

As an aside, she noted that there will probably be a giant leap in centenarians in the next 20 years, as those who are now 80 benefited greatly from the advent of childhood immunizations when they were children.

And for a doctor, treating 100-year-olds is not an intensive care situation. It’s more of a hands-off prescription.

“It’s best to just stay out of their way,” said Fabiny. “Whatever it is they’ve been doing, they’ve been doing it right. The health care system is more likely to cause harm than good for a person that has aged so successfully.”

Fabiny said she sees many 100-year-olds, and she is more interested in their experiences than their superior genetics. She said that upcoming increases in the 100-year-old population will only help to give younger generations a living link to the distant past.

She said she often has conversations with 100-year-old patients about how they used horses rather than cars for transportation, and how much more patient and dangerous the world was in the past.

Overall, she said having more 100-year-olds will be valuable to our society only if we pay better attention to what they have to say.

“People who are that old are walking history books,” she said. “They’ve seen so much change and have lived through so much. Whether they lived quiet lives as working people or traveled the world, they’re full of interesting information about how the world used to be. We’d all do well to learn from them…I encourage us to notice them more because old people – especially those who are 100 – are pretty invisible in this culture. As we see more 100-year-olds, I’d like to see them be less invisible.”

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