Longevity: Wisdom From Earth’s Elders


At age 115, Bettie Wilson is a walking miracle, a study in sturdiness. Scientists have long been fascinated by people like her, the oldest of the old. What are their secrets? How do some manage to avoid the diseases that cut short most lives?

Today, about 450 people in the world are past 110, according to The Gerontology Project, an Atlanta-based independent research group that has tracked and documented the ages of these supercentenarians. Many more have hit the full-century mark: about 50,000 people in the U.S. alone and 100,000 worldwide, according to the Boston-based New England Centenarian Study.

Photojournalist Jerry Friedman has searched out 50 of the oldest of the old, and shares his photographs — as well as their stories — in his book, Earth’s Elders: The Wisdom of the World’s Oldest People. He found many in the U.S. — in the Upper Midwest, the Northeast, the deep South — and also in India, Japan, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Mongolia.

From these encounters, Friedman uncovered common threads — personal traits, habits, and attitudes that may offer secrets to longevity. What he found, scientists tell WebMD, matches what the research studies are showing. There is a pattern to longevity that we can control, to some extent. Quite simply, it means taking better care of ourselves — plus staying active, curious, and confident that things will work out.

The Common Threads

Genetics clearly were critical to their long lives, Friedman reports. “It might skip a generation, but clearly the genetic component was in each of them.” Each had siblings, parents, or grandparents who had lived a century, or nearly so.

He found optimism, humor, faith, and resiliency in each, despite the harshness of their lives – disease, prejudice, wars, famine, and blizzards. Each was born to rural life where hard physical work was the constant. It provided a healthy diet — fresh vegetables, fish, soy, and grains, although none was ever a big eater, Friedman notes.

Rural life also gave them a strong family spirit, he tells WebMD. “For the most part, they talked in glowing terms about their childhoods. Their lives back then were really very hard. But they saw it as very positive. That family spirit was part of them. While things may have been hard, it gave them strength, a will to survive.”

Family and friends remained an essential part of their lives, he found. Even in old age, they had a social network that kept isolation, loneliness, and depression at bay.

What Science Reveals About Aging

“The best data shows that only about one-third of longevity is due to genes,” says Carl Eisdorfer, MD, director of the University of Miami Center on Aging. “The most important factors are behavioral — eating too much, eating the wrong foods, alcohol and drugs, how you view stress, how you deal with it — whether you’re connected to family, if you have an extended family.”

A growing body of evidence is backing up those statements.

The Role of Genes

Genetics: At least 50% of centenarians have parents, siblings, and/or grandparents who lived to a ripe old age. In fact, scientists are getting closer to discovering specific genes that govern this longevity, says Robert Butler, MD, director of the International Longevity Center.

“The intent is not to genetically produce people who live 100 years or longer,” he tells WebMD. “The research is really about better understanding the genetic component of longevity — then we can learn how that translates into healthier behavior … like changing your dietary habits and getting colonoscopies if you know you’re genetically predisposed to colon cancer.”

Nutrition: Few centenarians have ever been obese. Studies have shown that restricting one’s food intake indeed can slow the aging process. It seems to reduce oxidation of cells and increases a cell’s resistance to stress, which may protect against various diseases like heart disease and cancer. “This has been found in recent studies of rodents and in a whole range of animal species including nonhuman primates and monkeys,” Butler explains. “It may be applicable to humans as well.”

Also, a healthy diet helps combat this cell damage – which is why eating -rich foods like whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, and nuts is advised. There’s yet another benefit of restricting our food intake – it controls our weight, which also adds years to our lives.

No Smoking: Very few centenarians have ever smoked. Need we say more? Both smoking and obesity have been linked to life-threatening health problems, including heart disease and cancer. In fact, one recent study suggests that and obesity accelerate human aging by causing damage to telomeres in cells. Telomeres are the tips of chromosomes that contain DNA. While telomeres naturally shorten over a lifetime — as a normal part of the aging process — smoking and obesity speed up that process.

The Role of Stress

Stress Reduction: Centenarians are better able to handle stress than most other people. Studies have shown that the stress hormone cortisol dampens the body’s immune system, increasing the risk of , stroke and other life-threatening health problems. Having a strong social support system offsets that risk; so do meditation and prayer, listening to music, and getting a massage.

A strong spirituality is part of this coping mechanism, explains Eisdorfer. “We humans don’t deal very well with ambiguity and unpredictability, and faith gives us a sense of order and organization in the universe. Studies show that having faith helps relieve stress — a belief that things will work out, that you will get help when you need it.”

Optimism: Centenarians have a good sense of humor and an ability to put things in perspective. They also have more reasons for living, says Butler. “People who continue to have goals in life live longer. Having a goal reflects a positive, optimistic attitude, which gives them reason to get up in the morning, a real purpose in life. Those who had purpose are the ones that lived the longest.”

This optimism is the spark to stretch one’s mind, notes Eisdorfer. “Every spring, we pick up the newspaper and see that some 80- or 90-year-old has graduated from college. That shouldn’t be unique. We need to get rid of this ‘one gas tank’ theory of aging. It’s never too late to start something new.”

“We all have multiple abilities and interests,” adds Robert Roush, EdD, MPH, a professor of geriatrics at the Huffington Center on Aging at Baylor University School of Medicine in Houston. “The key is to pursue them over the life course. It’s never too late to learn. People take up painting, write poetry, all sorts of things because they are interested in them. It promotes good physical and mental health, and helps you stay cognitively intact.”

Exercise and Long Life

Exercise: Exercise also keeps body and mind in good shape, Roush says. The body loses bone strength and lean muscle mass rapidly as we age. That leads to brittle bones, balance problems, and bad falls that send too many older people to a nursing facility.

Studies have shown that — even among the oldest old — strength training can offset these problems, Roush explains. By lifting weights and doing resistance exercise, older people can build muscle mass and stronger bones. Regular exercise also keeps the joints limber, the strong, and keeps weight under control. Plus exercise can boost your mood because it triggers endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in the brain.

Perhaps that was 115-year-old Fred Hale’s secret to longevity. For 30 years, he rode his bike to work (he was a rural postman). He also kept a big farm going — cleaning the barns, tending the hayfields, maintaining the roads during Maine winters. “It kept him healthy,” writes Friedman. “He can’t remember ever taking a pill in his life.” Even after Hale retired, he kept up the chores, spending his free time hunting and fishing.

“He was such an amazing person, he really stuck out in my mind,” Friedman tells WebMD. “He was as lucid as you and I, and his recall was much better than mine – considering the span of time he covered, he was even more impressive. There was virtually nothing he couldn’t answer.”

Yet all those years of physical work didn’t prevent the inevitable. Hale took a bad fall awhile back, and has spent the last year confined to a wheelchair in a nursing facility. Yet he still plays cards, still cracks jokes, still watches the Red Sox. “I’ve enjoyed all my years, each one, even the recent one,” he told Friedman.

Fred Hale’s words of wisdom: “You have one life to live, live it well, and don’t disgrace your family.”