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7 Life Secrets of Centenarians

Planning to live to 100? Here's a guide from those who have already made it.

By Lynn Peters Adler, J.D. | August 17, 2013
Contributor Photo

Lynn Peters Adler, J.D., is the co-author, with Steve Franklin, Ph.D., of the new book, Celebrate 100: Centenarian Secrets to Success in Business and Life. She is founder and director of the National Centenarian Awareness Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to celebrating centenarians and combating ageism.

Charles
Charles "Cliff" Kayhart proudly displays his iPad in the kitchen of his Tennessee home; photo taken April, 2013.
Courtesy Lynn Peters Adler
There is no one pathway to reaching age 100. We all have the opportunity to grab the brass ring in our own way and many of us will. One in 26 baby boomers is now expected to live to 100; legions more will reach the mid-to-late 90s. In Celebrate 100: Centenarian Secrets to Success in Business and Life, the new book I co-authored with Steve Franklin, we share advice distilled from interviews and surveys of more than 500 centenarians. Their insights form a guide to what lies ahead as we inch our way through our 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.

How Centenarians Live Now

Will we still be having fun when we reach 100? A chorus of active centenarians answers a resounding, "Yes!"

(MORE: How to Live to 100)

Margaret Dunning, 102, is a self-made businesswoman and philanthropist who learned to drive on her father's Model T at age 8 and has collected and restored classic cars since the 1940s. She is competing in 11 antique car events around the country this summer. "It's been a good ride and I am enjoying the opportunities provided by these later years," says Dunning, who kicked off the circuit in her 1930 Packard roadster at the Concours d'Elegance in Amelia Island, Fla. "I love the awards and the attention the car gets. It's my 'Beauty.'"

Like Dunning, the majority of active centenarians say they do not feel their chronological age; on average, they report feeling 20 years younger. "I don't think old and I don't feel old," says Astrid Thoenig, 103, still at work as the office manager in her family's New Jersey insurance agency.

"The trick is not to act your age," says Marvin Kneudson, 101, who played a central role in developing the community college system across the Midwest. "I use a smartphone and I keep in touch with my grandsons on Skype."

To be sure, these centenarians are among the best, brightest and healthiest of the current class; that's what makes them role models for the future of aging. Here are seven secrets they cite for living a long and happy life.

1. A Positive Attitude Trudi Fletcher of Tubac, Ariz., a lifelong artist, remains an innovative painter at 100 and recently had a gallery exhibition showing off her new style. She credits her creative longevity to "attitude, attitude, attitude." Almost all of the centenarians we spoke to \believe a positive yet realistic attitude is critical throughout one's life and described themselves as optimistic people.
 
2. Diet Here's diet advice you may not have heard before: Eat like it's 1960. Our centenarians were critical of today's supersized portions; the majority advised just eating nutritious food in moderation. Only 20 percent said they had ever been on a specialized diet plan, although some had become vegetarians. Lillian Cox, 107, of Tallahassee, Fla., confided that in her 50s she became "quite heavy" but resolved to lose the weight, did so and kept it off by just eating less. The stylish former dress shop owner says, "I was a good advertisement for the merchandise I selected on my frequent buying trips to New York."
 
(MORE: Do You Have What It Takes to Age in Good Health?)

3. Exercise "Move it or lose it," says Louise Caulder, 101. "I don't leave my bedroom before doing 30 minutes of stretches. Later, I walk a mile. Three times a week I play bridge. You've got to exercise your mind as well as your body — everyone knows that, but I wonder how many are actually doing it." A few centenarians who successfully maintained their athleticism or gained new skills in later years have competed in the Senior Games. "I always thought of myself as an ordinary guy, but once I was in my 90s, I looked around and realized I was the oldest one at the lanes and I could still keep up my score," says bowler George Blevins, 100. "So I entered the Senior Games and have enjoyed winning several medals, even at 100."

Joe Meyser, 102, took up golf at 70, got pretty good and began competing in the Senior Games himself. "I drove to wherever they were holding them that year in my camper," he says. "It was fun. I gave up the camper when I was 97, but won a gold medal at 100."
 
(MORE: 3 Minutes of Exercise and Two Fasts a Week: Is This the Future of Fitness?)

4. Faith It came as no surprise to us that almost all centenarians we spoke to said that their faith has sustained them. Most believe they will be here as long as God has a purpose for them. "Perhaps we are here to be an example to others in hard times," says Roberta McRaney, 101, whose original home was struck by lightning and burned to the ground, as did her rebuilt house.

5. Clean Living Harry Adler, 101, says it's this simple: "Just stay out of trouble." Everyone's interpretation of that advice may vary, but many centenarians told us it means doing what you know is right and following your conscience. Also, almost 75 percent of the centenarians we surveyed never smoked; most of the others stopped between the ages of 40 and 70. And while some never drank, most said they enjoyed only an occasional cocktail or a glass of wine; some still do.

6. A Loving Family Family was universally important to centenarians. They enjoy their roles as matriarchs or patriarchs and many spoke of the pleasure of watching younger generations grow and flourish. One respondent credited her longevity to "a wonderful and loving family, the good Lord and a rum and Coke every afternoon."
 
7. Genetics All of the secrets mentioned so far reflect lifestyle choices that can influence longevity to varying degrees, but our genetic makeup makes a difference as well. "I picked the right parents and genes!" says Andy Weinandy, 100. Until medical science devises new ways to help us work with the genes we've been dealt, the secret is that some of us will be more prone to longevity than others. But there's no reason to be discouraged: A large percentage of centenarians we surveyed said their parents and grandparents were not especially long-lived.
 
(MORE: 85-Year-Old Graduates From College, Finds Job)

Despite the inevitable ups and downs, the biggest secret these centenarians shared is that living to 100 is worth the effort. Like climbing a mountain, we should aspire to reach that height, not just because it is there, but because the view from the top is unsurpassed.
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