Thursday, September 25, 2008

Supercentenarian Still Sharp as a Tack

Hitting the Big Eleven-O

By Andrew H. Malcolm
June 25, 2005 in print edition A-1

Marion Higgins is very good at remembering. She remembers writing her first book 10 years ago. She remembers moving into Seal Beach’s Leisure World in 1989. She remembers the history of furniture acquired at long-ago garage sales and celebrating the end of the World War – both II and I. She remembers hearing the Titanic had just sunk, and the long railroad ride to her family’s homestead in a new state called Idaho. And she remembers hating sunbonnets.

That would have been in the ’90s – the 1890s.

Mrs. Higgins turns 112 on Sunday. She is the oldest living Californian and is believed to be the 21st oldest living human. She belongs to an exclusive but growing population of super-old folks whose longevity is so much more than a family bragging rite.

Her life has spanned the terms of 20 of the 43 presidents in U.S. history. Her frail body, sharp-as-a-tack mind and amazing longevity are being closely studied
by a little-known Los Angeles research center to discover secrets to living long and well.

According to the Gerontology Research Group at UCLA, the average life expectancy for Americans born today is 77.6 years (80.1 for women and 74.8 for men). The 2000 census found some 50,000 Americans who claimed to have reached 100.

The research group, accepted as a global authority on the super-elderly by Guinness World Records, among others, doesn’t care about those who’ve merely crossed the 100-year mark. These scientists become interested after someone reaches 110 – a super-centenarian – which only about 500 Americans of those 50,000 will.

Then, the group’s network of clever gerontology detectives like Robert Young seeks proof and insights.

“The entire globe has been explored and mapped,” Young says. “Now, we can start discovering the geography of the human life span.”

Young and others mine troves of data to verify the truly old, research their lives and uncover senior frauds. Earlier in life, it seems, adults tend to fib about their age on the low side; the age 39 keeps coming to mind. But somewhere in their late-80s/early-90s, people start padding ages on the high side, encouraged by proud family members and even the odd tourism agency.

In the eyes of these researchers, Marion Higgins is among the verified elite. She’s a living textbook on aging whose lifestyle, habits, health, mental acuity and genes – along with, ultimately, her autopsied body – may offer valuable clues in the age-old search for the secrets of longevity.

“We know so much more than before,” says Dr. L. Stephen Coles, a physician and co-founder of the Gerontology Research Group. “We see some patterns. For instance, your parents’ genes are primary. You don’t ever want to be fat. And optimists seem to fare particularly well. But we’re still only beginning to decipher the biological hieroglyphics of the human genome and how the human body ages.”

To Mrs. Higgins, who’s had 40,907 days to figure it out since June 26, 1893, that’s so much high-falutin’ folderol.

“I face every day one at a time and I’m always learning something new,” she says. “I’m just a slow learner.”

Also, she doesn’t eat raspberries. Not even for birthday celebrations. Mrs. Higgins’ second son, Horace, will preside over the family festivities. He’s 82, played tennis three times a week until last winter and may be the only Caltech graduate to attend a 60th class reunion – and bring his mother.

Super-centenarians remain rare, but their numbers are growing. In 1999, the gerontology group, a loose band of doctors, demographers and part-time researchers, counted 45 people verified as 110 or older. Today, its website ( lists 66. Over the years, it’s documented 835 super-centenarians, including 16 who reached 115.

Young, the group’s senior investigator, says few people have the ambition to reach 110. But, he notes, “At 109, given the alternative, 110 can seem acceptable.”

He estimates the world’s population of super-centenarians at 250 and growing, in part because doctors, medicines and nutrition have prolonged what experts call the human health span – the period between birth and the cascade of medical problems that mark the end of life.

Verification by the research group is a rigorous, peer-reviewed procedure involving original documents such as birth and marriage certificates. Modern reissues of documents or family Bible notations are insufficient.

Young and group colleagues such as Louis Epstein often pore over old census data and military draft records. Many of the 1890 census records were destroyed by fire, but the 1900 census is a treasure chest, listing birth month and year for each resident at most U.S. addresses.

Epstein, the 44-year-old owner of an Internet service provider in Putnam County, N.Y., and Young, a 31-year-old graduate student in Atlanta, share an academic delight in digging up accurate documents, uncovering frauds and challenging each other.

Investing a few hours each day, they work with a network of like-minded researchers around the world who monitor the continued existence of listed super-centenarians and help gather documentation on new ones from slow-moving officials, gullible news media and nonchalant families who do not share the researchers’ diligence, discipline or sense of urgency.

For instance, Young has been waiting months for a marriage certificate from the family of Mary MacIsaac in Saskatchewan that would add her to the list at 111. “You must think and question like a detective,” he says.

Epstein and Young keep a list of false and exaggerated old-age cases. Charlie Smith of Liberia claimed to be 137 but was really only 105. Susie Brunson of South Carolina said she was 123, 18 years older than documents showed. They even uncovered an apparent conspiracy of travel agents on a Caribbean island who touted phony native super-centenarians to promote tourism.

“When claiming to be young becomes futile,” Young notes, “claiming to be older can seem desirable.”

Age 115 is now regarded as a realistic upper limit to human longevity, which five women could reach by November. The oldest documented human was Jean Calment of France, who died Aug. 4, 1997, at 122 years and 164 days. The oldest validated super-centenarian today is Hendrikje Van Andel of the Netherlands, who will turn 115 next week. The oldest American is Elizabeth Bolden of Tennessee, who will turn 115 on Aug. 15.

Why bother with all this?

“First of all,” says Epstein, “facts are important in life. And so is debunking frauds.”

Young, who grew up fascinated by World War I tales told by an aged aunt, thinks there’s much to learn about history from, say, an ancient war veteran or the child of a slave. He travels to birthday parties for listed super-centenarians, where he’s treated like family.

“I want to educate people on what it takes to live a very long time,” he says. “It’s not easy and it’s not a circus sideshow.”

For Coles, keeping legitimate lists offers important scientific benefits: opportunities to continue decoding human DNA and the mysterious aging process through long-lived examples.

“People think if we can only eliminate disease after disease, we can live forever,” he says. “Not! Our bodies are biological machines with certain warranty periods built in through the DNA of our fathers and mothers. So pick your parents wisely.”

Indeed, the group’s research shows genetics can trump lifestyle. Mrs. Higgins’ siblings lived into their 80s, her mother to 92, and her father to 101. Young’s old notes show that men with sisters living to 100 are 17 times more likely than others to make it that far themselves. Other indicators are less clear.

In the longevity race it’s best to be female; 90% of super-centenarians are women. Coles also sees moderate living as critical. Or as Mrs. Higgins puts it, “I never had enough money to lead a riotous life.”

During World War II, when two sons served in the Navy and a third was a USO entertainer in Les Brown’s Band of Renown, Mrs. Higgins lived in Pomona and made tail de-icers for B-17 bombers. Her husband, John, a machinist, died in 1949 at 60. After a career with the Los Angeles County tax assessor, Mrs. Higgins has drawn Social Security since the first Eisenhower administration.

Being active and involved with others also seems to lengthen longevity. Mrs. Higgins set some records in the Senior Olympics in her day, which, she admits, reflects the absence of competitors in her 85-to-90 age bracket 25 years ago.

Her social schedule is built around visitors and visiting, as well as audiobooks (mysteries are a favorite), religious radio programs and garage sales, which she and son Horace visit weekly before they do crossword puzzles together.

He and his wife, Liz, also take dictation of a continuous stream of super-centenarian stories. Many were collected in a book privately published by Mrs. Higgins. She’s sold 900 copies so far at prices that vary according to her estimation of a customer’s willingness to pay.

“In the fifth grade,” Mrs. Higgins recalls, “I got a tablet and sat down to write a book. I was very excited. But I couldn’t write anything because I hadn’t lived much yet. So I waited ‘til I was 102. Writing makes me feel so alive.”

Although no one remains from her early years to contradict details, Mrs. Higgins’ memory seems sharp and clear. She recalls the word games her father invented while the farm family sorted beans around the dining room table. She can still rattle off the alphabet – backward.

Mrs. Higgins’ eyesight and hearing have clouded in recent years, but her senses of taste and smell still function. At 96, she had a hip replaced, and she broke her thigh a few years ago after a stumble. “I gave away those shoes,” she says.

That injury caused her Assembly of God minister, Howard Fox, to install a bicycle horn on Mrs. Higgins’ cane. She has also had some facial skin cancers removed, the delayed price for often shucking that sunbonnet behind her mother’s back a century ago.

Moderation in diet also enhances longevity. Coles cites studies of lab animals fed less and living longer than relatives on more bounteous fare. More bluntly, Young adds, “We don’t find any fat 110-year-olds.”

Mrs. Higgins, who awakens about 8 a.m. daily, weighs 134 pounds, up a little since her activity declined in recent years. For breakfast, she has oatmeal and fruit. For lunch, a sandwich, soup and more fruit. And for dinner, her housekeeper knows that chicken or pork chops, broccoli and apple sauce or Mrs. Higgins’ beloved peaches are always welcome.

“I don’t really dislike anything,” Mrs. Higgins says, “although I’m allergic to raspberries.” Chewier foods also tax her worn dentures.

Her birthday this weekend will not be celebrated with any of those little firecrackers that Mrs. Higgins liked to throw around in packs during countless summer evenings. Nor will there be cake. Instead, she’ll get a blueberry pie and vanilla ice cream. Visitors who want candy know to keep boxes of chocolates beyond her reach.

They also know that at the slightest urging, Mrs. Higgins will accurately recite entire epic poems from her childhood, detailed verse after detailed verse, her weathered fingers still fidgeting with her skirt as they might have in front of that ninth-grade English class 98 years ago.

A visiting Coles marvels aloud at the recitation and the sharp memory of California’s oldest person, taking note of it all for his super-centenarian files.

Mrs. Higgins quietly chuckles, but then cautions him. “I’m afraid,” she admits, “I don’t remember the teacher’s name.”

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