The Current

Want to live to 100? What centenarians in a Nova Scotia county can teach us about aging

You may like the idea of living to be a 100, but only about 8,000 Canadians can call themselves centenarians. How do they reach this milestone?
Margaret Meister enjoying a dory ride on her 102nd birthday. She took up painting the landscapes of her home in Lunenburg at 99. 'I always was a daredevil.' (Margaret Meister )

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All over the world, researchers are exploring how the planet's oldest people have survived. One place they're looking is Lunenburg County, N.S., where it's thought there's a higher density of people who thrive in old age.  

"The smell of the water, it reminds me of my youthful days when I lived right by the water," says 102-year-old Margaret Meister, who lives in Lunenberg County, along Nova Scotia's rocky South Shore.

Margaret Meister, 102, on a dory in Lunenburg, N.S., says the smell of the water is invigorating. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

A team of undergraduate researchers from the University of Richmond in Virginia, led by psychology professor Jane Berry, travelled to the county to meet several of its older residents. 

Berry says what was unique about the people she met was the combination of their genetic makeup, living in a close-knit community and being active.

Like Joy Saunders, who at 99-years-old still lives on her own, in a two-storey house. 

At 99, Joy Saunders still lives on her own, walks her dog Prayer daily and volunteers at a foot clinic. 'There's always something to do. There's no reason in the world to be bored at all.' (Katy Parsons/CBC)
French supercentenarian Jeanne Louise Calment has the longest confirmed human lifespan, living to the age of 122 years, 164 days. (Wikipedia)
"Many of these centenarians and nonagenarians (a person aged 90 to 99-years-old) are just very fit people and that goes beyond being healthy," says Berry.

"To be fit means that you are not frail and that you probably have good bone density, good muscle mass and good cardiovascular and pulmonary functioning."

Centenarians are the fastest growing demographic in Canada. Still, only about 8,000 people currently living across the country have reached this milestone.

Add 10 more years — living to 110 years — and that leap offers the honour of being called supercentenarian.

Supercentenarians 'extremely rare' 

Geriatrician Dr. Thomas Perls simply calls them his 'supers.' He's been researching thousands of people as old as 119 for more than 20 years.

Perls is the director of the world's biggest study of centenarians and supercentenarians, The New England Centenarian Study at the Boston Medical Center.

Here is part of his conversation with The Current:

Anna Maria Tremonti: Are there a lot of people out there who are as old as 110?

Thomas Perls: No. They are extremely rare. About one per five million in the population.

AMT: What are the supercentenarians like who you study? 

TP: It depends. But on average they are living independently without any significant age-related disease at about 105 or 106.  They are very special. The supers are the creme de la creme in terms of aging extraordinarily well.

To get to these most extreme ages, genes actually play a really important role. It's probably like 70 per cent genes and 30 per cent environment and behaviour.

Walter Breuning is believed to be the fifth oldest man ever. The American supercentenarian was 114-years-old (and 205 days) when he died. (Great Falls Tribune, Larry Beckner/AP)

AMT: How do you know how old some of these very old people are? 

TP: You have to be very careful. Ninety-nine per cent of claims of ages of 115 and older are false. It's not like people are purposefully lying and have some kind of hidden agenda to claim these ages. Stories grow. There are crazy stories of people living to 140. Some of them promoted by people trying to make some money.

'About one out of every eight centenarians are men. Women for sure win the longevity marathon'

Sarah Knauss was born Sept. 24, 1880 and died at 119-years-old in 1999. She was one of Dr. Thomas Perls' research subjects. (The Morning Call, Chuck Zovko/AP)
When we do encounter really extreme ages, we, first of all, get a hold of something like a birth certificate but we also look for other forms of corroborating proof like school report cards, military records and marriage certificates. 

AMT: Tell us about the oldest person you ever studied. She lived in Pennsylvania?

TP: That's right. Sarah Knauss who was in Allendale and lived to 119. We had to go through all kinds of hoops to prove her age because it was so incredibly rare. One of the really interesting ways we figured out she was the age she was was we got the family together for a photo for Life Magazine and seated next to her was her 99-year-old daughter. 

AMT: Who's the healthiest and most capable person you have ever studied?

TP: The healthiest and most capable person I've studied at 110 or older was a guy named Walter Breuning. About one out of every eight centenarians are men. Women for sure win the longevity marathon. Walter was amazing at 114. He was the fifth oldest man ever.

Walter dressed up in a three-piece suit every day. He talked my ear off for probably 90 minutes without repeating himself once. What we were so struck by was here was a 114-year-old brain that had absolutely no evidence of Alzheimer's disease. This notion of 'if you live old enough you'll get Alzheimer's' is just not true.  

AMT: You've been at this study for more than 20 years, have you changed anything about the way you live?

TP: Oh, for sure. It was a real eyeopener seeing people getting to 100. That is 20, 30 years beyond the age of 80. To me, they raise the bar for the rest of us to having a very open mind to the notion, 'Wow, if I really take good care of myself, there's a big pay off for potentially living many years, and much of it independently and in good shape.' 

Joy Saunders, 99, gets interviewed by some American undergaduate psychology students visiting Lunenburg from the University of Richmond. Saunders told the researchers she's had few regrets in life. 'Could have had a little more sex.' ( Katy Parsons/CBC)

Instead of looking at aging as "the older you get, the sicker you get," to me it's much more the case of "the older you get, the healthier you've been."  

*This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.*

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by CBC Halifax network producers Mary-Catherine McIntosh, Katy Parsons and The Current's Cathy Simon.