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Interview: Centenarians on the Art of Aging


The ranks of centenarians are growing worldwide. And with more Canadians than ever before hitting the one century mark, we ask what are their secrets.

New research led by Shannon Freeman concludes: "Like snowflakes, no two centenarians are alike." Yet, they have many things in common.

Freeman is a PhD candidate in the aging, health and well-being program in the school of public health and health systems at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

The researchers reported their findings online in Educational Gerontology on July 2, 2013.

Shannon Freeman

AHB reached Shannon Freeman at the University of Waterloo.

Ruth Dempsey: This is a fascinating group of old people. They all talked about a reason to get up in the morning . . .

Shannon Freeman: Yes, this was a key finding in our study. They valued purpose and meaning in their lives. Each in their individual way talked about how they made a conscious choice to keep living and find value in every day.

Centenarians are a very heterogeneous group. And the centenarians in this study represent a minority of the oldest old who remain healthy, strong and actively involved in the community.

RD: They discussed spirituality but none referred to a religious denomination.

SF: This was something I found very interesting. Participants spoke clearly of the importance of spirituality, faith and devotion in their lives. But not one mentioned their religion or church group by name.

Many expressed gratitude to God for their long life. Others wondered why God had forgotten them: "Every day I question why I am still living," one woman remarked.

RD: They valued community . . .

SF: For some centenarians, community meant family. They spoke of the importance of intergenerational relationships and their continued involvement either caring for or being cared for by their family.

Some continue to work and be employed whether in an advisory capacity or as an active employee. "I’m needed that’s why I’m working," one 100-year-old man said. "I grew up in the business."

For others, community meant continuing to be involved in sports and local activities such as volunteering.

RD: I was struck by their positive "take" on the world.

SF: Yes, they stressed the importance of living in a positive environment filled with sunshine and laughter. Many were able to find happiness in their relationships with family, friends and others in their social group.

They shared the pleasure of having things to look forward to, such as various cultural events. Their favourite activities included singing, playing cards and going to church.

Others talked about the importance of goal setting. Some participated in competitions – swimming, bowling and ping pong – as part of the National Seniors Games. They were very proud of their accomplishments.

RD: But no "secret" diet?

SF: No. Among centenarians, not only in this study but across the world, there is no consensus on diet.

You can find pockets of centenarians that share commonalities in their diet such as consuming a vegan or plant-based diet, or a diet full of red meat and vegetables, or one of more fish, grains and vegetables.

Across the board, however, centenarians like choice in their food and they eat in moderation.

RD: What about physical exercise?

SF: Physical exercise was important for the centenarians in different ways.

Some raised the importance of regular exercise to maintain physical health by walking or riding a bike, for example. One participant said he had been bowling regularly for 93 years.

They also referred to physical exercise as a social activity. One centenarian talked about the importance of going for a walk, saying hello to people in the neighborhood and making new friends.

Others engaged in sports activities for the mental stimulation and social opportunities, and not just to keep physically fit.

RD: One 106-year-old woman felt she had lived too long already?

SF: This woman’s story offers valuable insights. Living to be 100 years old is not always golden.

Reports about centenarians often tout the good stories: the 102-year-old woman pumping her own gas, a 101-year-old man breaking world records in sports. We hear less about the struggles they face.

Centenarians may outlive their spouse and friends and even their children. This takes a personal toll and reduces their social network.

They may exhaust their financial resources and have to manage on a small fixed budget.

At times, some may even feel they have become a burden because they can’t do things for themselves.

RD: Comedian George Burns noted the key to longevity was keeping worry at bay. Would they agree?

SF: Yes, I think many would. One underlying common theme of the study is the importance of choice.

Most of the centenarians credited their being here to their ability to make good life choices and to finding meaning in life.

They focused on modifiable factors such as lifestyle choices, which can make a difference in our health and quality of life. And they combined this with a deep zest for life and the ability to find reasons to keep getting up in the morning.

I think they have many valuable lessons to teach us.