When they were asked to name their favourite foods, they answered onions, apples and honey, in that order, and one man went on to say that he had made it a rule all his life to chomp down a raw onion every day. They were asked this question because they were all more than 100 years old, and that's one thing you do with centenarians: You ask them what they eat, also what they drink and smoke or don't drink and smoke, also how much exercise they get, and what they think about their lives. By celebrating a 100th birthday, they become authorities. We want to learn their secret, if they have a secret.
So far, the evidence suggests that the secret rests in the genes. Either that, or in the diet. Or, if not there, then in exercise, or a moderate way of life, or maybe serenity. The urge to understand has attracted many medical researchers, but scientific wisdom has not so far risen much above the level of the maxims handed down the generations.
The sort of thing your grandmother told you is still true, or at least not disproved. For now, centenarians remain a cultural and folkloric as much as a medical subject.
The academic specialty called Centenarian Studies has sprung up because centenarians have grown numerous enough to test and classify. There are currently about 50,000 of them in the United States alone, three times as many as in 1980. Telegrams sent from Buckingham Palace provide an indicator. In 1952, 255 messages congratulating subjects on their 100th birthdays went out across the Commonwealth; by the 1990s, the Queen was sending more than 5,000 a year. When the Queen Mother turns 100 on August 4, she joins a club that is quickly growing less exclusive.
The New England Centenarian Study, based at Harvard, starts with the notion that these survivors "carry the secrets to successful ageing and how to delay or even escape diseases associated with ageing." If geriatrics focuses on what's wrong with fairly old people, a centenarian study tries to find out what's right with very old people. Because if there is one thing that's striking about centenarians, aside from their numbers, it's their health. Only about a fifth of them have ever been seriously ill, and many are as swift, mentally, as typical 60-year-olds. The Georgia Centenarian Study, in a 1995 report, said that more than 60% of its participants claimed their health had improved in the previous five years.
Something else: The emotional tone of their lives impresses everyone who studies them. This emerges in the book Centenarians: The New Generation (1991), the posthumous assembly of the life's work of Belle Boone Beard, a pioneer in this academic territory, who questioned 600 centenarians (including some fanatic onion-eaters) over 40 years. She found them exceptionally content.
Often they cited "long and happy marriage" as the key to longevity. Many had celebrated their 75th anniversaries, some their 80th. Those who lost a mate usually wanted another one. Beard found 10 men who married or remarried after 100 (but only one centenarian bride). In considering the secrets of longevity, she wrote, we should never ignore romance.
The book Centenarians in Hungary: A Sociomedical and Demographic Study (1990) reported that the 123 participants in a national survey had proportionately fewer neuropsychiatric disorders than the general population. They revealed an "affirmative attitude towards life" and the ability to balance reasonably their wishes and their possibilities. "They like to live and lead a harmonious life."
The New England study has recently confirmed the Hungarian observations by identifying what researchers call the Centenarian Personality, which they describe as a "stress-resisting mindset." Typical centenarians are "stress-shedders," unusually well equipped to handle disappointment and loss.
If the very old have indeed reached a high level of serenity, how can we explain it? Not easily. It could be that those who are inherently able to manage their turbulent emotions are the kind of people who reach 100; or it could be that centenarians simply outlive their most consuming angers.
The New England study is developing some remarkable information, even if it isn't yet entirely understood. They know now that centenarian women are four times more likely to have given birth after age 40 than women who died at 70; this suggests that their reproductive systems were ageing slowly, like their other systems. They are running, apparently, on different clocks.
If the New England results raise complex questions, Beard's material gives off a nostalgic aura. There's an unusual charm in her little dramas of longevity, and her book might now be considered a classic if it had been less clumsily written. Her subjects freely passed on advice.
One centenarian considered goat's milk in great quantities to be the key to longevity, and another recommended a fish-dominated diet. Several suggested that meat-eaters stick to buffalo and venison, which, being "natural," are healthy. One man said "I eat lots of cayenne pepper, every meal." A centenarian said her health depended on utterly avoiding eggs, but another had eaten four hard-boiled eggs every morning.
Only about half drank alcohol, and not much of it -- but the drinkers swore by their morning shot or their single evening beer. One respondent took a drink of whisky every morning, insisting it be 100-proof.
A third of them had used cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco or snuff, but fewer than 3% had smoked cigarettes. That doesn't quite tell the whole story about tobacco, however. In 1977, when a woman in France named Jeanne Calment died at the age of 122, the news stories mentioned that she hadn't given up cigarettes till she was 117.
Beard admired her respondents for their individuality and their willingness to assert themselves. Sometimes, she noted, this took unconventional forms, even to the point of exhibitionism, which occasionally scandalized the merely middle-aged. She came across Florence E. Dolph (1847-1949) of Scranton, Pa., who achieved international fame (the story appeared in the Times of London) by sliding down a banister on her 100th birthday. Her niece explained that this wasn't just something the old lady had worked up for her centennial birthday; it was her regular party trick.