Would You Want to be a Centenarian?

I was surfing Yahoo! News earlier today. Buried among the usual tabloid fodder, half-baked political articles, and random recipes for food you can make in less than 30 minutes, was an amazing human interest story: Mrs. Besse Cooper, of Monroe, Georgia, just turned 116 retaining her position as the world’s current oldest person. She is ranked 10th on the all-time longest living human being list. 116? How is that even possible?

Cooper was born August 26, 1896. She saw the Progressive Movement, World War I, the roaring 20’s, Women’s Suffrage, the Great Depression, World War II, The New Deal, J.F.K.’s assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, both Gulf Wars, September 11th, and the election of the first black president of the United States. Mind you, she was born just prior to William McKinley’s presidential election victory on November 3, 1896. When she took the title of oldest person, she was naturally asked how she did it. According to Guiness World Records, she stated: “I mind my own business. And I don’t eat junk food.”

Cooper’s family said the more years she has tallied, the wittier she has become. Her statement sounds like a parental platitude, except at 116 she can also educate her numerous great-great-grandchildren. In fact, her simple advice is probably something everyone can heed. After all, she was born long before the gossip industry and junk food craze existed. If you want to make it to her age, you’d better be good to those around you and maintain a healthy diet!

Naturally, one asks, “Do I want to live to 100”, or more realistically, “Can I live until 100?”. It’s just a number, a chronological measure of time, but it represents a fascinating culmination of life events that demand further exploration, both scientifically and philosophically.

I suppose one point worth stating is that most Centenarians – including Supercentenarians – didn’t necessarily set out to live past 100 at birth. They lived normal lives, enjoyed good health, had happy relationships, and of course had incredibly resilient genetics. You also have to consider the fact that some luck played into their longevity. Many people have great genes, a happy disposition, and take dutiful care of their bodies, yet fall victim to accidents, become casualties of war, or develop terminal illness unusually early in their life. Mrs. Cooper and her fellow Supercentenarians obviously dodged these bullets, and it’s to their credit.

This also brings an interesting philosophical question to the fore: If I want to live to a ripe old age, shouldn’t I just isolate myself from the world and keep out of harm’s way? I suppose someone could greatly extend their lifespan if they lived in a mini-paradise, free from the world’s troubles. Unfortunately, such an existence is neither pragmatic nor realistic; at some point we all have to interact with society and contemplate its trials and tribulations. Maybe the more important question is not “How should I avoid misfortune?”, but “How do I tolerate misfortune?”. Clearly, Mrs. Cooper hasn’t lived in a vacuum, and yet through it all, she managed to persevere to 116 years of age and counting. Perhaps she should be asked about how she dealt with life’s most difficult moments, and how she mentally picked herself back up and soldiered on?

THAT is what I want to hear from these incredible people. I’ve struggled with mental illness for years now, and sometimes I wonder whether or not it will shorten my lifespan, simply because miserable people don’t feel the need to postpone their eventual demise. It’s also a well established scientific fact that people who live longer have an optimistic view of their own world, bolstered by a strong social support system and the guts to stick it out through thick and thin. Maybe it takes a village, but it might also take a positive outlook on life to crack the 100 year barrier. If you’re not happy with yourself, there’s not much impetus to stick around.

So, all things considered, I’d love to make it to 100; however in doing so, I would want to live a full life. When I excuse myself from social activities to work, or take a nap instead of going out to the movies, I’m certainly preserving myself for posterity, but I might not be truly enjoying the moments I have right NOW. Does a long life equate happiness, or does happiness equate a long life? Again, you could leave me in a mini-paradise at age 33 with all bills paid forever, and I might still croak at 75. Immediately before I expire, I would naturally ask myself if spending the balance of my adult years locked away from the rest of the world – liberated from its good and bad – was truly worth it. My answer would most likely be “No”.

Maybe the real wisdom to gain from Mrs. Cooper’s story is how she balanced the “live life in the moment” desire with the “take care of yourself for the future” axiom. Some of us party like there’s no tomorrow, while others squirrel away their resources for use later on. Neither is right, neither is wrong, it really comes down to individual choice. Our society should study and interview Supercentenarians more closely, instead of excusing them as genetic anomalies or just “extremely lucky”. I think their advice, gleaned over the course of more than a century, would be words to live by in a world currently plagued by uncertainty, perhaps the most damning force we will ever combat during our Earthly existence.

Interesting Facts:
Source: Wikipedia “Oldest People”

  • The current world record for the world’s longest living person is held by Ms. Jeanne Calment of France born February 21, 1875 and dying on August 4, 1997, at the astounding age of 122 years, 164 days. She is the only documented human being to have lived more than 120 years.
  • The current world record holder for world’s oldest living man is held by Jiroemon Kimura of Japan, born April 19, 1897 with 115 years, 130 days to his name. Prior to his retirement to a small farm, he worked in the post office for 40 years.
  • ALL of the top 10 longest living human beings of all time have been female.
  • 50% of the top 10 all time longest living human beings are from the United States, despite our healthcare troubles and obesity epidemic.
  • Of the top 10 current oldest living people, 50% (5) are from Japan, 40% (4) are from the USA, and 10% (1) is from Italy.