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The Rise of Centenarians

The Rise of Centenarians

Photo of Goldie Small, courtesy of Good Shepherd Village at Endwell

As a child, Goldie Small rode in her family’s horse-drawn carriage on a farm in upstate New York. Now, at 108 years old, she enjoys playing an occasional game of bridge on her personal computer.

Small is still in good health and has only the normal aches and pains common to many older Americans. Living in a retirement community in Binghamton, N.Y., Small works out in the gym a few times a week.

“I go to some exercise classes,” she says. “I work out on a couple of the machines. I do yoga.”

A few years ago, a woman eight years past the century mark would be front-page news. But it is not as rare as it once was. Small is one of a growing number of people making it to 100 and beyond.

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of centenarians in the United States increased 44 percent since 2000.

There were 72,197 Americans over the age of 100 in 2014, up from 50,281 in 2000.

As baby boomers age, the number of centenarians could keep surging, the CDC says, with some projections showing that in 30 years, it could reach 387,000, more than five times the current total

Better health care and a more active, health-conscious senior population account for the increase, the study’s author, Jiaquan Xu, says.

Small says she always tried to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“I didn’t smoke and drink much,” she says. “I never ate a lot of sweets, either.”

She confesses, however that, “I don’t eat as many vegetables as I should.”

Small also believes genetics has played a big role in her long life.

“My mother lived until she was almost 100,” Small says.

Small’s chances of living past 100 were boosted by her gender, with women accounting for more than 80 percent of all U.S. centenarians, the CDC says.

She is also fortunate to have a strong heart. Heart disease was the leading cause of death for women centenarians in 2014, according to the CDC study. Also, Small has never been overweight.

About 17 percent of the U.S. population has genetic traits that increase their chances of living past 100, according to Dr. Thomas Perls, director of Boston Medical Center’s New England Centenarian Study. Small is a participant in that study.

The massive vaccination programs of the 20th century meant that more people with the genetic disposition to live past 100 survived childhood, accounting for the surge in centenarians the United States is now experiencing, Perls says.

When Small was born in 1908, surviving childhood was indeed a major challenge for many people. Small can remember epidemics of polio and scarlet fever. But she had only the usual childhood diseases of measles and chickenpox.

Small remembers that it was the early 1920s before her family purchased their first car, and she is amazed at how technology has changed the world, including television and computers.

She never planned on living this long and wishes she could provide a magic answer when others ask how they too could live a century of more.

“People are always asking me that,” Small says, chuckling. “I wish I had an answer.”

When asked that same question, Herdes Berquist, aged 106, typically replies, “Clean living.”

Berquist, an Iowa native whose father owned a “creamery” that sold butter and ice cream, also was never a smoker or drinker and she exercised regularly. She is the first in her family to make it past the century mark, although her parents lived to be in their eighties.

Even now at the assisted living community where she lives, in Loveland, Colo., Berquist exercises daily.

“A lot of people don’t exercise when they get older and that’s a mistake,” she says.

Berquist remembers the major events in her life marking technological progress, including the family’s first telephone and car and her premier trip on an airplane. She is not an Internet user and doesn’t watch a lot of television.

Her son, Peter, 74, believes that advances in health care have allowed his mother to live longer than the previous generation.

“She had cancer and survived that,” he says. “She had a blood clot. She broke her leg at the age 101. You have to say medicine has been a big factor.”

Like Small, Berquist never expected to live this long but doesn’t spend a lot of time analyzing the reasons for her longevity.

“You just live each day one at a time,” she says.

David Beasley

David Beasley has been a freelance writer since 2008. He is also an author specializing in the history of the American South. 

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