Health

Obits of the Super Old Reveal the Secret to Living Past 100

(There isn't one.)
May 1, 2017, 8:10pm
Image by Lia Kranowitz for VICE.

Emma Morano died on on April 15 of this year. She was 117 years and 137 days old, the last person alive that had been born in the 1800s, barely making the cut by coming into the world in November of 1899. "The woman who saw three centuries." An unquestionably remarkable feat.

With the passing of every new World's Oldest Person comes one question: Is there a secret to living that long?

Over the past few weeks, I've been digging through the obits of some of the planet's most seasoned people—so-called supercentenarians—to see if there is some kind of common thread that can be pulled to explain how or why they were able to live as long as they did. There is not. In fact, had I not spoken to an expert (we'll get to her in a bit), I'd be even more confused than I was before I started.

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For instance, according to her doctor, and in direct contrast to what anyone would think of regarding sound health, Morano's diet consisted of "very few vegetables, very little fruit." She drank brandy and ate lots of cookies. She also famously ate three raw eggs a day. Beyond her diet was a lifestyle choice she made when she divorced her husband back in 1939 when she was a effervescent 39 years old. Morano claimed the reason she lived as long as she did was because never remarried. "I didn't want to be dominated by anyone," she told AFP in an interview.

Comparatively, Lucy Askew died in 1997 at 114 years old and was "a God-fearing teetotaler, self-reliant, never bored and unafraid of dying." Charlotte Hughes, 115 years old, said her secret was "healthy eating and keeping the Ten Commandments." Margaret Skeete, 115, "liked sweets." Edna Parker, 115, said it was education, a sense of humor, and eating meat and starch, including "eggs, sausage, bacon, and fried chicken." Myrtle Dorsey, 114, said it was simply her love of bowling. Susannah Mushatt Jones, an Alabama native turned New Yorker who lived to be 116, insisted on eating bacon every day.

There is no through line here, nothing really you can pull on that these ladies share in common save for the fact that they are women, who greedily take up 94 of the top 100 oldest people of all time spots. Women outlive men, five to ten years on average, and of the people who make it to see 100, 85 percent are female. But beyond that, there is no magic lifestyle bullet keeping these particular human hearts ticking longer than most.

This is also true when you look at the lives of very old guys, who have virtually the same story as the ladies above. No straw to grasp. Jiroemon Kimura, the oldest verified man in human history at 116 years and 54 days, ate a regular breakfast of rice porridge and miso soup. His day also started by getting up early to read the newspapers, and he was fond of watching parliamentary debates on TV. Christian Mortensen, second oldest fella at 114 years old, ate a diet of potatoes, vegetables, and at least one cigar a week. Emiliano Mercado del Toro, 115 years old, credits a diet of boiled cornmeal, cod, coconut milk, and the fact that he never married. Mathew Beard, a longtime Freemason who lived until he was 114 and was busted for drunk driving when he was 90, credited his long life to God.

No, Mathew. Not God. Genes. It's about genes.

She quit smoking at 117 and claims to have eaten two pounds of chocolate a week.

"Scientific evidence has pointed to longevity, at least in part, as inherited," says Dr. Sofiya Milman, a longevity specialist and endocrinologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and the expert I referred to earlier. After finding nothing resembling a "secret" to long life in the obits, I called her up. She explained the one real trick to living a long life isn't much of a trick at all. "It seems to run in families, such that siblings and children of centenarians seem to live longer and healthier. So, there's a significant amount of evidence that it is genetic and inheritable."

To Dr. Millman's point, none of these extremely old folks, as you can see, ate particularly well. None of them were gym rats, either. And as Morano, Mortensen, and Beard's lives attest, they enjoyed the occasional (or frequent) smoke or adult beverage. In the obits of supercentrarians, that cuts both ways. Some like to indulge, while others never touch the stuff.

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Marie-Louise Meilleu, a Canadian woman who lived to 117 years and 230 days old, liked to wind down with a glass of wine after a hard day's work, She also smoked until she was 90. Felicie Cormier, who died within two days after Meilleu, was 118 when she shuffled off this mortal coil. She never smoked or drank, and both went to bed and got up early. Bacon lover Mushatt Jones also never smoked or drank. And then there's Jeanne Calment, who is the oldest verified living person ever on record. She passed in 1997, at an astounding 122 years and 164 days old. Calment quit smoking at 117 and claims to have eaten two pounds of chocolate a week.

So, yeah, who the fuck knows? Dr. Milman again: "That's not to say the average person should not exercise or smoke," she says. "There's very strong evidence that these habits are not good for health. But what's unique about long-living individuals who engage in these lifestyle activities is they have some genetic disposition to being protected from these impacts."

In other words, a significant amount of what determines longevity come from genetics, but that's not to say your lifestyle doesn't have an impact. "If you didn't have the good longevity genes," says Dr. Milman,"then good lifestyle would be important to protecting you from disease."

Another factor may be an aversion to stress. Studies have shown that elevated levels of the "stress hormone" cortisol can lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, and, bingo, lower life expectancy. While none of the obits contained within them results from stress tests, each made mention of how happy and fulfilled each supercentenarian seemed during their long lives, whether that mean staying single like Morano or eating the damn bacon like Mushatt Jones. And not for nothing, but World's Oldest Person Ever Calment's greatest strength, according to a public health researcher, was that she "was someone who, constitutionally and biologically speaking, was immune to stress. She once said, 'If you can't do anything about it, don't worry about it.'"

Those are incredibly wise words to live by, no matter what your age.

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