Who is Edna Parker?

If you haven’t heard of her don’t fret, I haven’t either. But today, April 20th, is her 115th birthday, which makes her the longest living person in the world! How many of us can claim that? As a matter of fact, none of us, by definition.

How did she make it? Maybe it was a lifetime of chores on the family farm that accounts for Edna Parker’s long life. Or maybe just good genes explain why the world’s oldest known person will turn 115 on Sunday, defying staggering odds. In fact, I think both. But don’t take my word for it. There is a study called the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University, or NECS, that is collecting data on centenarians (people reaching age 100, and supercentenarians, reaching 110) in an effort to uncover the key to living to an old age. So if you want to live to a ripe old age, read on.

 

What exactly is the NECS

The New England Centenarian Study (NECS) is based on the conviction that centenarians are a select group of people who have a history of aging relatively slowly and who have either markedly delayed or entirely escaped diseases normally associated with aging such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, stroke, and heart disease.

The study began in 1994 as a population-based study of all centenarians living within 8 towns in the Boston area. The prevalence of Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias in centenarians was the focus. Given that the prevalence of centenarians in industrialized countries is approximately one centenarian per 10,000 people in the population, at any particular time, we were studying approximately 46 centenarians within a total population of 460,000 people. The NECS has gone on to enroll centenarians from throughout the United States and other countries and has grown to be the largest comprehensive study of centenarians in the world. There are currently 1,500 subjects to-date, including centenarians, their siblings, and children (in their 70s and 80s) and younger controls.

Consistent with the hypothesis that centenarians markedly delay or even escape age-associated diseases (e.g. heart attack, stroke, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease), Dr. Perls, director of the study, and his colleagues, noted that 90% of them were functionally independent the vast majority of their lives up until the average age of 92 years and 75% were the same at an average age of 95 years. Centenarians disprove the perception that “the older you get, the sicker you get”; centenarians teach us that the older you get, the healthier you’ve been.

 

How can you predict if you have a chance to reach 100?

Not all centenarians are alike. They vary widely in years of education (no years to post-graduate), socioeconomic status (very poor to very rich), religion, ethnicity, and patterns of diet (strictly vegetarian to extremely rich in saturated fats). However, the centenarians we have studied do have a number of characteristics in common:

  • Few centenarians are obese. In the case of men, they are nearly always lean.
  • Substantial smoking history is rare.
  • A preliminary study suggests that centenarians are better able to handle stress than the majority of people.
  • Our finding that many centenarians (30%) had no significant changes in their thinking abilities disproved the expectation by many that all centenarians would be demented. We also discovered that Alzheimer’s Disease was not inevitable. Some centenarians had very healthy brains.
  • Many centenarian women have a history of bearing children after the age of 35 years and even 40 years. From our studies, a woman who naturally has a child after the age of 40 has a 4 times greater chance of living to 100 compared to women who do not. It is probably not the act of bearing a child in one’s forties that promotes long life, but rather, doing so may be an indicator that the woman’s reproductive system is aging slowly and that the rest of her body is as well. Such slow aging and the avoidance or delay of diseases that adversely impact reproduction would bode well for the woman’s subsequent ability to achieve very old age.
  • At least 50% of centenarians have first-degree relatives and/or grandparents who also achieve very old age, and many have exceptionally old siblings. Male siblings of centenarians have an 11 times greater chance than other men born around the same time of reaching age 97 years, and female siblings have an 8½ greater chance than other females also born around the same time of achieving age 100.
  • Many of the children of centenarians (age range of 65 to 82 years) appear to be following in their parents’ footsteps with marked delays in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and overall mortality.
  • Exceptional longevity runs strongly in families. Brothers and sisters of centenarians maintain half the mortality rate of other people born in the same time period, from age 20 all the way into extreme old age. The cumulative effect of this year-to-year survival advantage is that the brothers have a 17 times greater chance of living to 100 and the sisters have an 8 times greater chance.

So there you have it. If you too want to make it to 100 you should

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle,
  • Pick your parents very carefully,
  • Join the New England Centenarian Study. Edna Parker did, and see what it got her.
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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