Puzzle of the Century- page 9 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Puzzle of the Century

Is it the fresh air, the seafood, or genes? Why do so many hardy 100-year-olds live in yes, Nova Scotia?

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Nor do researchers fully understand all the centenarian data, such as why the great majority are women. In the United States, women older than 100 outnumber men by more than four to one. But men at 100 are more likely than women the same age to be in good health and clearheaded. Perls and his colleague Margery Hutter Silver, a neuropsychologist, have found that about 70 percent of centenarian women show signs of dementia, compared with only 30 percent of the men. Asurprisingly high proportion of the women—14 percent—have never married. In contrast, almost all centenarian men are, or have been, married.

 

Whether they’ve survived so long because they’re resilient, or they’re resilient because they’ve survived so long, centenarians are often possessed of exceptional psychological strength. “They’re gregarious and full of good humor,” Perls says. “Their families and friends genuinely like to be with them, because they’re basically very happy, optimistic people.” Agenial attitude makes it easier for people to handle stress, he adds: “It isn’t that centenarians have never suffered any traumatic experiences. They’ve been through wars, they’ve seen most of their friends die, even some of their own children. But they get through.”

 

Paradoxically, that centenarians have lived such long and eventful lives makes it all the more difficult to pinpoint any one advantage they may have shared. No matter how much researchers learn about longevity-enabling genes, no matter how well they discern the biological protections that centenarians have in common, the very old will always be an exceptionally diverse group. Each one will have a story to tell— as unique as it is long.

 

“I started fishing when I was 14,” says Shand, of Yarmouth. “Then I built fishing boats for 35 years.” He uses a wheelchair because a stroke 18 years ago left him with some disability in his right leg. He is broad-chested, robust—and sharp. “I don’t think hard work ever hurt anybody.”

 

“We had a lot of meat and a lot of fish and fowl,” says Elizabeth Slauenwhite, 99, of Lunenburg. There were also “vegetables and fruit,” she adds. “And sweets galore.”

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