Puzzle of the Century | 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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Maybe its that her face is so smooth and pink or the way she aims her green eyes right into yours, talking fast and crisply articulating each word. Her gestures are as nimble as a hatmaker’s. You would be tempted to say Betty Cooper isn’t a day over 70. She’s 101. “If I couldn’t read, I’d go crazy,” she says, lifting the magazine on her lap. “I like historical novels—you know, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and all that kind of stuff. I get a big batch from the Books for Shut-ins every three weeks, and I read them all.”

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Betty wears bifocals, and it’s no small thing to see as clearly as she does after watching a century go by. Though her hearing is not what it used to be, a hearing aid makes up for that. Complications from a knee operation more than 30 years ago keep her from walking easily. But she continues to live in her own apartment, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with assistance from women who drop by to cook meals, run errands and help her get around.

 

Cooper’s health and independence confound the notion that living a very long life entails more pain and suffering than it’s worth. “I do have a problem remembering,” she allows. “I go to say someone’s name and it escapes me. Then five minutes later, I remember it.” Of course, lots of people half her age have that complaint.

 

Betty Cooper is a diamond-quality centenarian, whose body and and brain appear to be made of a special material that has scarcely worn down. But just being a Nova Scotian may have something to do with it. At least that’s the suspicion of medical researchers who plan to study Cooper and others in Nova Scotia to learn more about the reasons for their very long—and hardy—lives. In parts of Nova Scotia, centenarians are up to 3 times more common than they are in the United States as a whole, and up to 16 times more common than they are in the world population.

 

Why? Nova Scotians have their own theories. “We’re by the sea, and we get a lot of fresh air,” says Grace Mead, 98, of Halifax. “I’ve always been one for fresh air.” “

 

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