Centenarians’ insight on how to age with grace, vigour

Laurine Strachan raised her arms gracefully and inhaled deeply. Slowly exhaling, she pressed her hands forward as if pushing against a brick wall.

Dorothy Yarborough gives activities director Kari Tyson a kiss at her birthday party at the Port Orchard Care Center.

BREMERTON, Wash. — Laurine Strachan raised her arms gracefully and inhaled deeply. Slowly exhaling, she pressed her hands forward as if pushing against a brick wall.

At 102, Strachan is by far the eldest in the senior citizens tai chi class at East Bremerton’s Canterbury Manor. Never mind she stayed seated to perform the moves. She’d felt a tad dizzy that morning. No point in risking a fall.

On her birthday, April 20, Strachan’s family and friends asked time and again, “What’s your secret?”

“I never gave it a thought,” she said. “Right now, like I say, I don’t feel as old as I am. . . . As far as age, I never bothered about it, because everybody always thought I was younger than I am.”

Strachan is what experts in the field of aging call a winner in the “longevity lottery.” She fits the profile for major factors associated with extreme age: favorable genetics, a healthy lifestyle and a positive attitude.

Researchers have spent decades looking at what makes centenarians like Strachan tick. What they’ve found has far-reaching implications even for those of us who won’t reach 100.

While some factors related to longevity can’t be controlled, studies suggest adopting healthy habits can improve quality of life and reduce health care costs at any age. Controlling costs linked to chronic illness will become ever more critical as 70 million baby boomers face the challenges of aging, while their children and grandchildren stand by to pick up the tab.

Once a rarity, those 100 and older in the United States increased in number by leaps and bounds during the 1990s — from about 37,000 to 65,000 through the decade — and their population continues to grow at an astonishing rate.

Current estimates — to be refined by the 2010 U.S. Census — put the U.S. centenarian population at nearly 80,000. By 2050, the census projects as many as 600,000 across the nation.

Centenarians’ numbers across the United States range from 10 to 20 per 100,000 of population, according to Dr. Brad Willcox, a Hawaii-based principal researcher in the long-running Okinawa Centenarian Study.

Prominent longevity studies — including Willcox’s — show most centenarians enjoy a quality of life enviable at any age, and Strachan is no exception. She lived on her own until she was 94, she rarely needs a doctor and while she complains about “slowing down,” she still enjoys activities at the retirement center . . . including the weekly happy hour. She is sound of mind, up on current events and computer literate.

Centenarians are also notable for their sheer breadth of human experience. In 1907, when Strachan was born, Henry Ford had yet to introduce the Model T, penicillin had not been developed for use, and television was unheard of.

Barry Johnson, director of Kitsap County Aging and Long-Term Care, said younger people could learn much from such centenarians.

“People recognize, when they look back over a 100-year span, we’re truly living in a completely different world,” Johnson said. “People innately understand there’s a wealth of knowledge and wisdom there.”

Dorothy Yarborough, a resident of Port Orchard Care Center, turned 102 May 12. She thrives on fried chicken, Oreos and M&Ms, and she doesn’t care much for exercise.

Folks like Yarborough who don’t exactly fit the centenarian profile crop up now and then, and Willcox has an explanation. Among the six factors that determine longevity — genetics, diet, activity, “psychospiritual factors,” social factors like access to health care, and pure chance — Yarborough probably has an ace up her sleeve.

“When she was dealt her deck of six cards, she probably had a really good one, like an ace, for genes,” Willcox said. “Her hand was pretty good.”

In most cases, however, a healthy lifestyle is “at least half the battle,” Willcox said.

The Okinawa Study, begun in 1975, documents the lives of more than 1,000 residents of the Japanese island. Geographic isolation and a unified culture make Okinawa the perfect laboratory for such study.

Among the entire population, which takes a sparing approach to food, there is 90 per cent less coronary artery disease than in the wider world, a third less incidence of cancer, and breast cancer is virtually unheard of.

Okinawan elders in the largely agrarian society stay active through their old age. The community has no word for “retirement.” But it’s not just activity for activity’s sake, Willcox said. His subjects have a strong sense of purpose.

“They just have a lot of life to live,” Willcox said. “The Okinawans have this joie de vivre I’ve never seen in any other culture. They don’t dwell on things. They tend to let things bounce off their backs.”

Kitsap County’s Johnson has seen it in the extreme elders he works with. “They accept challenges, deal with them and move on,” he said.

Centenarians in Western culture — including Kitsap County — also exhibit the free-spirited sensibilities that pervade Okinawan society.

The worldwide increase in centenarians is directly related to better health care that kicked in mid-20th Century, Willcox said.

But the marvels of modern civilization have been both a blessing and curse.

Unlike today’s centenarians, many of whom grew up on farms, U.S. baby boomers and their offspring are showing the effects of sedentary work, much of it in front of computer screens.

“Looking at the ones who are 70 now, are they going to make it to 100? I don’t know,” Willcox said. “We’re all obese; we’re all stressed out, so I’m wondering what’s going to happen to future generations.”

What does the future hold for up-and-coming generations of would-be centenarians?

Experts say that depends on our ability to change both lifestyles and attitudes.

And what if we don’t? According to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2009 report on healthy aging, “The aging of baby boomers will place unprecedented demands on the nation’s public health and aging services networks.”

The CDC — along with private and public agencies — is scrambling to spread the gospel of healthy aging, as exemplified in the centenarian population.

A pilot program funded by the CDC, the New Jersey Blueprint for Aging, is raising awareness among key decision makers and the elderly of the proven benefits of healthy aging strategies.

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