An Arkansas woman who just celebrated her 116th birthday isn't as unusual as some might think.
Gertrude Weaver -- officially the oldest living American and second-oldest person in the world -- belongs to a fast-growing segment of the U.S. population: people who are 100 years old or older.
There are about 53,000 centenarians in the U.S. today, and they are happy to share the secrets to their longevity.
Finding your passion
Music is everything to Marianne Arden, who insists that if she cannot play the piano anymore, she doesn't want to live.
At 101 years old, the Austrian-born American still plays the piano with the same enthusiasm as she did in her younger years when she performed on stages across America.
“I played the songs of the day that were popular and played and sang also some of my own songs,” she said, seated in front of one of two pianos at her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Arden has written 130 songs in four different languages, which she still enjoys sharing with the world.
Today, she plays those same songs -- all from memory -- for her friends and neighbors once a week at a community center near her home and hopes to keep playing as long as she’s alive.
Her advice to anyone seeking to live a long and fruitful life is to “love your life,” and “keep your mind busy.”
“It’s important that you make your brain work because if you don’t make it work it will fall asleep,” she said before returning to her piano playing.
Madeline Brown derives her joy from being around people.
She greets everyone she sees in the hallways of the independent living facility where she’s been a long-time resident, offering hugs and words of encouragement.
“That’s the highlight of my life,” she said on a recent afternoon. “Make somebody happy.”
Brown, who has survived cancer and says she never dieted or exercised, lived to see 17 presidents and recently celebrated her 100th birthday. She is delighted and proud to have received a personal greeting from President and Mrs. Obama, a special recognition presented to all American centenarians.
As much as Brown enjoys people, she never married.
“I decided why should I marry one man and make him miserable when I can stay single and make them all happy,” she said.
But marriage has been a good thing for George Boggess, who, at 102, has been married to Dorothy for more than 70 years.
“I don’t think I would have lived without her,” he said, and attributes his longevity to his wife and the values he learned growing up in Texas. “We had to go to church, we had to go to school, and we had to work.”
Today, he spends most of his time at a medical center for veterans, where he takes part in many of the events and activities, and cites another important component to his long life: attitude.
“You have to have the right attitude to everything,” he said. “You can’t go around frowning, sad, complaining, criticizing.”
As an African-American soldier who faced many hardships, that attitude helped him survive World War II and his courage earned him a Purple Heart.
“It was thought that black soldiers could not live up to the expectations of other soldiers,” he said. “What we proved during the Battle of the Bulge was that that was a false assumption. We stayed, we fought, we won.”
Science of Longevity
A just-released study that examines why some people live longer than others finds genetics and mobility play a role in longevity.
“Our goal is to learn from people who have successfully aged and try to understand the factors that contributed to that,” said Winnie Rossi, an aging expert at the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.
What they have determined so far, is that family history makes a difference.
“Researchers have found over time that brothers and sisters of centenarians tend to live long and healthy too, compared to their counterparts in the population, as do the children of these very old people,” Rossi said.
The study also found that these older individuals tend to have better health profiles than their counterparts who don’t live as long, so they’re able to move around, walk and engage in more activities.
“I think generally people are living longer and healthier, but there is a very robust group of very old people… who are somewhere from their late 90s to well into their hundreds,” said Rossi.