Original article appeared in The Wall Street Journal
As the number of centenarians rises in the U.S., so does the incidence of disease and loneliness. But the upside includes seeing great-grandchildren and witnessing history.
Do you want to live to be 100?
“Why not?” says Betty Donovan, 92. Her older sister, Annamarie Donovan, is 108 and in good health. Annamarie got her first iPad when she was 100 and is now on her third upgrade. The sisters, who married brothers, are both widowed and live together.
“No,” is the response from Betty’s daughter, Annie Donovan, 54. Her mother and aunt have each other and are in good health, but not everyone is that lucky, she says. People their age often outlive their loved ones and are in failing health.
Living to 100, once a rarity in the U.S., is on the rise. Centenarians now number around 82,000, up from 50,000 in 2002, according to census figures; those 100-plus are the country’s second-fastest growing age group, just after those 85 and older. In the next decade, the number of centenarians is expected to rise to about 140,000. Researchers think we can live even longer: While average life expectancy for men is 76 and women is 81, the limit of human life is widely set at 122, the reported age of Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997.
People marvel at the eldest, especially the healthy ones, and ask what they eat and drink and do for exercise, in hopes of learning their secrets. But many aren’t so sure they want to live that long. A 2018 Harris Poll, conducted on behalf of the University of Phoenix, found that 59% of American adults say living to 100 has too many risks to be worthwhile. And those who would like to live that long set conditions: Just over 70% want to be 100 as long as they don’t look 100.
As life expectancy has risen, so has the incidence of some diseases. The number of people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias has grown to 5.8 million in 2019 from 4.7 million in 2010, a 23% increase, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The question becomes whether the advantages of living longer—like seeing great-great-grandchildren and witnessing medical or technological breakthroughs—are worth physical and mental limits that come along with it. Some people feel 85 or 90 years are plenty. Others who aspire to be 100 change their minds after visiting a long-lived friend in a memory-care unit.
There are also those who inspire, like Sally Jamieson. Mrs. Jamieson, who turned 100 in January and celebrated the milestone with six parties, worked with the Greater Cleveland Volunteers and Red Hat Society, visiting people in a nursing home and calling the elderly on their birthdays.
Her 30-year volunteering career followed her professional career as vice president and treasurer of her husband’s manufacturing company. Her mind remains sharp and her memory clear, especially for numbers, including her first telephone number: “Florida (35) 1-6284.”
“Living this long is a way of having a lot of wonderful memories,” she said earlier this month. “Everything you do is a memory when you get to be this old.”
Her two daughters, Barbara Walter and Nikki Migliorino, both out of state, take turns spending a month with her. Mrs. Walter, 72, who lives in Florida, would like to live to 100 if her quality of life is as good as her mother’s. ”I see so many people where that’s not the case,” she says. She thinks it’s important for her mother to hand down memories to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They, in turn, have much to offer Mrs. Jamieson in terms of care and companionship. “If you can put that together, it can be beneficial to both sides,” she says. Her mother had to stop volunteering recently because of respiratory issues.
Ezekiel Emanuel, a 61-year-old oncologist, bioethicist and vice provost at the University of Pennsylvania, says he will be satisfied to reach 75. By then, he believes, he will have made his most important contributions, seen his kids grown, and his grandkids born. After his 75th birthday, he won’t get flu shots, take antibiotics, get screened for cancer or undergo stress tests. If he lives longer, that’s fine, he says. He just won’t take extra medical steps to prolong life.
“People want to live to 100 but your horizon of what life is becomes much, much narrower,” he says.
When Tom Perls began tracking 100-year-olds in 1995 for the New England Centenarian Study, there was one centenarian for every 10,000 people. Now it’s one in 5,000. “Prevalence has doubled,” says Dr. Perls, a geriatrician at Boston Medical Center. He found that many of those who live to be 100 are able to handle stress well, are more optimistic, extroverted, conscientious, and agreeable.
Isaac “Ike” Newcomer is one of them. The outgoing 108-year-old widower has endeared himself to many people at Lake Morton Plaza, a senior-living complex in Lakeland, Fla., where he lives. He plays Wii U bowling and takes a morning walk.
“I’m surprised I’ve lived that long. Sometimes I wonder why,” says Mr. Newcomer, who grew up on a farm in Hershey, Pa., worked at the chocolate factory there and met his wife, Helen, on a carousel at Hershey Park. She was quiet. He was the talker, introducing himself to strangers when they traveled in their Airstream and at square dancing. If anything, he has become more social as he has grown older and more of a ham, his daughter says. Last fall at Lake Morton, he dressed up as a pirate and won the Halloween contest.
He takes only one prescription medicine and four-over-the counter salt tablets. “The advantage to living this long is maybe I’ve learned a little bit more about people, how different they are,” he says. “The bad part, every year gets a little harder for me to get around. I have no pain. It’s just that I’m old and it’s hard to walk. But I just enjoy life and always look on the bright side.”
His daughter, Pattie Johnson, 73, says she would like to reach 100 if she is as healthy as he was at 100. He took a cruise to Mexico that year. Her one concern is that she doesn’t have any children, who could watch out for her the way she does for her father.
Sisters Betty and Annamarie Donovan are fortunate in that respect. “We take care of each other,” says Annamarie.
Their bedrooms are joined by a hallway in Marian Hall Home, a Pittsburgh personal-care residence. Betty’s room is a little larger, accommodating two green recliners so they can sit side-by-side, talk or watch the news together. Annamarie uses her iPad to google the spelling of tricky words and email and Facetime with her two stepdaughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Betty, mother of 11, calls her children, grandchildren and elderly friends who live alone.
They take great care in their appearance, putting on makeup each morning and wearing earrings to match their outfits. Betty, the more mobile of the two, attends 8 a.m. mass daily and meets her sister for breakfast. They go to exercise classes four times a week. On Wednesdays, they have their hair done. In the evening, Betty helps Annamarie brush her teeth and lays out her outfit for the next day. “She does it very gracefully,” says Annamarie of her younger sister.
The two have always been close in spite of their 16-year age difference, marrying brothers who lived in the neighborhood, their weddings only months apart when Betty was 22 and Annamarie, 38. Widowed after only 13 years, Annamarie, who worked in the accounting department of the local telephone company, came over to Betty’s house three or four times a week for dinner.
The sisters say that six of the eight children in their family lived to their 90s. Annamarie is the only one so far who has lived past 100. She had no ambition to become what researchers call a “semi-super centenarian”—someone 105-109 years, and one in 250,000. She eats well and is active and sharp, often winning a complicated card game called Hand and Foot.
Her overall health remains good, but she fractured her spine at 104 and now uses a wheelchair, which she doesn’t like. That is about the only downside, she says, to living this long. “I’m happy where I am,” she says. “I go with the flow.”