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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Yet the province’s cluster of centenarians has begged for a scientific explanation ever since it came to light several years ago. Dr. Thomas Perls, who conducts research on centenarians at the BostonMedicalCenter, noticed that people in his study often spoke of very old relatives in Nova Scotia. (To be sure, the two regions have historically close ties; a century ago, young Nova Scotians sought their fortunes in what they called “the Boston States.”) At a gerontology meeting, Perls talked to one of MacKnight’s Dalhousie colleagues, who reported seeing a centenarian’s obituary in a Halifax newspaper nearly every week. “That was amazing,” Perls recalls. “Down here, I see obituaries for centenarians maybe once every five or six weeks.” Perls says he became convinced that “Nova Scotians had something up their sleeve” that enabled them to reach such advanced ages. “Someone had to look into it.”


MacKnight and researcher Margaret Miedzyblocki began by analyzing Canadian census data. They found that the province has about 21 centenarians per 100,000 people (the United States has about 18; the world, 3). More important, MacKnight and Miedzyblocki narrowed the quest to two areas along the southwestern coast where 100-year-olds were extraordinarily common, with up to 50 centenarians per 100,000 people. One concentration is in Yarmouth, a town of 8,000, and the other is in Lunenburg, a town of 2,600.


To the researchers, the notable feature was not that Yarmouth and Lunenburg were started by people from different countries. Rather, the key was what the two towns have in common: each is a world of its own, populated to a significant degree by descendants of original settlers. And as the researchers learned, longevity tends to run in families. Elroy Shand, a 96-year-old in Yarmouth, says he has a 94- year-old aunt and had two uncles who lived into their 90s. Delima Rose d’Entremont’s mother died at 95. Betty Cooper’s father died at 98. Says MacKnight: “It’s very possible that the 100-year-olds in Nova Scotia have some genetic factor that has protected them—even from all the bad effects of the local environment.”


Only a three-hour ferry ride from Bar Harbor, Maine, Nova Scotia extends like a long foot into the Atlantic, connected to New Brunswick by a thin ankle. Almost all the stormy weather that roars up the Eastern Seaboard crashes into Nova Scotia. In winter, powerful northeasters batter the province with snow and freezing rain. The windswept shoreline, the vast expanse of ocean beyond, and frequent low hovering clouds make the place feel remote.


Unlike most Nova Scotians, whose ancestors were English, Irish and Scottish, Lunenburg residents largely trace their heritage to Germany. In the mid-1700s, the province’s British government moved to counteract the threat posed by French settlers, the Acadians, who practiced Catholicism and resisted British rule. The provincial government enticed Protestants in southwestern Germany to immigrate to Nova Scotia by offering them tax-free land grants, surmising they would not sympathize with either the unruly Acadians or the American revolutionaries in the colonies to the south.



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