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Silver Linings: A century and counting -- Why more are living to 100

By GRETCHEN M. GROSKY
New Hampshire Union Leader

January 21. 2017 11:09PM
Violetta Levesque, 104, speaks in her room at the Mount Carmel Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Manchester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
Centenarians by the numbers
53,364: The number of people age 100 and older counted by the 2010 Census.

20.7: For every 100 centenarian women, the number of centenarian men in 2010.

43.5 percent: In 2010, percentage of centenarian men who lived with others in a household, the most common living arrangement for this group. For their female counterparts, the most common living arrangement was residing in a nursing home (35.2 percent).

3.29: Number of centenarians per 10,000 people in North Dakota in 2010. North Dakota was the only state with more than three centenarians per 10,000 people.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2015

It was 1913, and the United States was about to implement its first income tax. Women didn't yet have the right to vote. The first coast-to-coast gravel roadway was under construction and the zipper was about to be patented.

It was also the year that Violetta Levesque was born in her home on the West Side of Manchester. It was a home she lived in for the first 100 years of her life.

"When I was 100, I said I had enough of housekeeping," said Levesque, now 104 years old and living at Mount Carmel Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Manchester.

While reaching the age of 100 is still rare, the number of those making it past a century is on the rise. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the numbers of Americans age 100 and older increased by 43.6 percent, from 50,281 in 2000 to 72,197 in 2014.

New Hampshire's increase in centenarians can be seen in the numbers of those dying after reaching the 100-year mark. Data collected by E. Nicholl Marshall of the state's Division of Vital Records Administration shows a 31 percent increase of those 100 and older dying between 2013 and 2016 - and that number could be higher with deaths yet to be reported to the state.

While the increase in numbers of centenarians has climbed, there is much debate about why some live so long, how long people will live in the future, and what kind of quality of life can be expected.

Manchester resident Esther Cohen turned 100 in October. She openly says she wishes she didn't.

"I'd rather I lived to a younger age," she said.

Who gets to be 100

The world's oldest living person is Emma Morano of Italy, who turned 117 in November. She told reporters she believes her longevity has to do with the two eggs a day she eats and cookies.

Stacy Andersen with the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University said it has much more to do with genetics. This landmark study on aging has been looking at those over the age of 103 since 1995 and has found the majority of these people carry more than 130 of the same genes.

There are other commonalities, Andersen said. Those who live beyond 100 years tend to be female, have worked more years and were able to drive until an advanced age. They tend to be extroverts and spent a lifetime trying new things while not sweating the small stuff.

"We hear that a lot from our centenarians, that they don't worry about things as much," Andersen said. "Centenarians have lived through wars and the Great Depression and lived through things our generation can't even contemplate."

Faith also can play a factor, Andersen said. She points to Seventh Day Adventists who have a life expectancy of 88 years old, 10 years higher than the average American. She said these followers eat a vegetarian diet, don't smoke or drink, and are connected to others socially through their church.

One is also more likely to reach 100 if they live in another country. In 2015, the World Health Organization ranked the U.S. 31st in the world for life expectancy at 78.8 years. This figure represented a tenth of a year drop in expectancy from the year before and was the first such drop since 1993, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

The leader in longevity is Japan at 83.7 years, followed by Switzerland, Singapore, Australia and Spain.

A devout Catholic, Levesque attributes her longevity to three things - "no dancing, no night clubbing," and "God's will." She said she lived life "the old-fashioned way" and, like Cohen, she had a number of family members who lived a long life but none reached 100.

"I just kept going. It just happened," Levesque said.

What it's like

At Mount Carmel, there are four current residents who have made it to the century club, said Activities Director Barbara Corkadel. There's Cohen, Levesque, another resident with dementia, and one who was new to the facility but didn't want to talk. Corkadel has been serving elders for over 30 years and said it's more common for people to reach 100 than when she first started.

But long life doesn't necessarily mean a good life.

Both Cohen and Levesque are alert and pleasant to talk to. The petite Levesque is far more mobile and uses only a walker to scoot quickly between floors to make it to her bingo game or daily Mass. Cohen is in a wheelchair, needs help getting around and is open about believing she's lived too long.

Dr. BJ Entwisle, a geriatrician at Concord Hospital, says this is not an uncommon sentiment among those reaching their 90s.

"They see more frailty and dependence coming, worry about dementia, and they are outliving all of their friends and even their own children," Entwisle said.

Entwisle said the oldest patient she has treated is 109 and of the centenarians she has taken care of, she hasn't found a "cognitively intact, engaged one."

"I have a 104-year-old woman in a nursing home who has had end-stage dementia for years and we all wonder how she can live so long, no quality there," Entwisle said.

Andersen disagrees. She said there are currently 103 centenarians participating in the study and most have been upbeat, relatively healthy and proud to have crossed the 100-year milestone. She said they feel like they had a purpose in life, as do their offspring who are also part of the study.

Anderson hopes to break 100 herself.

"I think working with centenarians has given me a positive attitude on aging," she said.

Finances are also an issue. Cohen worked well into her 90s in an office, an accomplishment she is quite proud of. But for 83 percent of centenarians, Social Security is their main source of income, with less than 24 percent still pulling money from a pension or retirement fund, according to U.S. Census figures. The average Social Security income for someone over 100 was $11,993 a year - just $626 more than the poverty level of a single person over the age of 65.

How old will we get?

There is great debate about how long human beings will survive in the future. Two American researchers captured some attention in 2000 with a bet over whether the first person to live to 150 years old has already been born. Odds are that neither Jay Austed or Jay Olshansky will be alive to see who wins the bet, so the $150 they each bet was placed in an investment account that will go to their descendants or research.

They upped the bet by another $300 last year when a study came out from the Albert Einstein School of Medicine which suggests that it is unlikely the human life span can be advanced beyond the ages of those already on record.

"Demographers as well as biologists have contended there is no reason to think that the ongoing increase in maximum life span will end soon," said Jan Vijg, the author of the study. "But our data strongly suggests that it has already been attained and that this happened in the 1990s."

Vijg and his colleagues, molecular geneticists studying the physics of aging, got to talking about Jeanne Calment, the oldest person on record. Calment lived to 122 before dying in 1997. He said the group of researchers were "philosophizing" about why most other record-holders did not reach past 116 or 117.

Despite not being demographers, Vijg said they decided to do a research paper on maximum life span.

"We see all these improvements; you would expect you would see the record broken for the oldest person happen all the time and it wasn't," Vijg said. "We have never had someone even close. You would expect the life span to be record-breaking every few years."

Vijg said their research of supercentenarians and morbidity data shows 115 is about the limit of a human's life span and that was reached in the 1990s.

"Since the 19th century, if you go to and look at these people, you see a dramatic increase and then it stops in the 1990s," Vijg said. "It seems to me it sort of ended and we're not able to have more record-breaking older people. ... It points to a ceiling you can't break through."

Vijg and his fellow researchers calculated that the probability in a given year of seeing one person live to 125 anywhere in the world is less than 1 in 10,000.

"Further progress against infectious and chronic diseases may continue boosting average life expectancy, but not maximum life span," Vijg said. "Perhaps resources now being spent to increase life span should instead go to lengthening health span - the duration of old age spent in good health."



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