Elsa Brehm Hoffmann loves bridge and is always ready for a party. Rosa McGee enjoys singing hymns to herself all day long. Will Clark makes a mean spaghetti and meatballs. What connects these three? They belong to the single fastest growing segment of the United States population: people over a hundred years old.
Hoffmann, McGee, Clark, and the nearly 100,000 other centenarians in the U.S. provide inspiration to the rest of us. But they also provide researchers with a tantalizing puzzle: Why do some people live so long? For years, medical researchers have been studying this select group, identifying some key factors to a long life. Now, a growing body of research is suggesting that longevity isn't just linked to good genes and a healthy lifestyle; it's also tied to cultivating a positive, resilient attitude toward life. These results validate a simple idea: that centenarians can teach us how to live not just longer lives, but better ones.
At the fore of this research is the New England Centenarian Study (NECS), which has enrolled more than 1,500 centenarians from around the world over the past 15 years. The study's director, Thomas Perls, says these participants dispel the belief that the older someone gets, the sicker he or she becomes. Instead, he says, "the older you get, the healthier you've been." In other words, people who demonstrate exceptional longevity tend to have had a lifelong history of good health.
Indeed, people who die in their 70s or 80s are plagued by degenerative illnesses in the years before their death; in contrast, Perls has found that nearly two thirds of centenarians either delay the onset of diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes—or escape them altogether. Plus, a substantial proportion of centenarians who survive such age-related illnesses do so without developing physical disabilities, enabling them to remain socially, mentally, and physically active. As a result, in a culture that romanticizes youth, Perls argues that centenarians embody "a thoroughly optimistic view of aging"—one that shows that prolonging life and enjoying it go hand-in-hand.