Helen is 108 years old. She hates salads, vegetables, getting up early and just about everything that has to do with a healthy lifestyle. She loves rare hamburgers, chocolate, cocktails and nightlife in New York: all the exotic restaurants, Broadway shows, movie theaters — where she recently saw “Iron Man 2″ — and the Metropolitan Opera. That’s where she attended her first opera, “Samson et Delila,” in 1918. It was a present from her father for her 17th birthday.
She also likes to smoke, of course: “I’ve been smoking for more than 80 years, all day long, every day. That’s a whole lot of cigarettes,” admits Helen, who has always been called “Happy” since she was a child. Then she giggles as she falls back into her soft armchair. This 108-year-old woman is so small and delicate that she almost seems to disappear into the plush furniture. She is wearing pleated pants, a pink cardigan with ruffles, a matching shawl and a number of pearl necklaces. Her short light-brown curls are perfectly blow-dried and she is wearing rouge and lipstick. Her skin is soft and nearly spotless, and her brown eyes sparkle merrily behind her glasses.
Since she had a stroke five years ago, her pronunciation has been slightly slurred. But her mind is alert, her curiosity as strong as ever, and her memory is often better than that of her 37-year-old Filipino caretaker. Happy is currently nursing a cold and should take it easy — so she is receiving guests in her apartment on Park Avenue, and not at the Indian place around the corner or at one of her other favorite restaurants. “But on Saturday,” says Happy, as she sits up again and beams, “on Saturday, we’ll meet with my brother Irving for lunch. Okay?”
Demographers have calculated that the life expectancy of people in the developed world has risen for the past 170 years by an average of three months per year. In Germany, it is currently 82 years for women and 77 years for men — and there’s no end in sight to this trend. How can we prevent this increasingly elderly population from being plagued by the typical afflictions of old age, including protracted illnesses and medical conditions such as arteriosclerosis, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s? Do the lives of individuals who have lived over a century provide recipes to combat the impending infirmities of a rapidly aging society?
There are some 50,000 people over the age of 100 in the United States, and just under 6,000 in Germany. One in seven million even live to the age of 110 and longer — and there is even a special word for these living ancients: supercentenarians. Research teams worldwide are searching for centenarians and supercentenarians to comb through their genes, medical records and life stories for explanations.
The results are sobering: “There is no pattern,” says Barzilai, 54. “The usual recommendations for a healthy life — not smoking, not drinking, plenty of exercise, a well-balanced diet, keeping your weight down — they apply to us average people,” says the researcher, “but not to them. Centenarians are in a class of their own.” He pulls spreadsheets out of a drawer, adjusts his glasses and reads out loud: “At the age of 70, a total of 37 percent of our subjects were, according to their own statements, overweight, and 8 percent were obese; 37 percent were smokers, on average for 31 years; 44 percent said that they only moderately exercised; 20 percent never exercised.”
But Barzilai is quick to point out that people shouldn’t start questioning the importance of a healthy lifestyle: “Today’s changes in lifestyle do in fact contribute to whether someone dies at the age of 85 or already at age 75.” But in order to reach the age of 100, says the researcher, you need a special genetic make-up. “These people age differently. Slower. They end up dying of the same diseases that we do — but 30 years later and usually quicker, without languishing for long periods.”