At the start of 1904, the U.S. population included 82 million people. Almost all of them are dead now, but Bert Wilbur, Geneva Chester, Pearl Alsten, and Archie Owen have survived. In 1904, five-year-old Bert Wilbur was living in Philadelphia, where his father had given up a career in medicine to work in the family chocolate factory. Geneva Chester turned two that year in Aitkin, Minnesota — just a few hundred miles from the Michigan town that was home to Pearl Alsten. Alsten was a newborn in January, as was Archie Owen, who came into the world in Los Angeles, a few months after her father was killed in an accident on the Pacific Electric rail line.
All four then proceeded, for more than 100 years, to dodge the disasters that could have killed them. They never met up with a drunk barreling down the wrong side of a back road; never occupied a seat on an ill-fated airplane; never inhaled a chunk of steak. They avoided breathing in tuberculosis or smallpox or anthrax germs. No homicidal maniac knocked at their doors.
Instead, Alsten, Chester, Owen, and Wilbur each wound up living in San Diego County as members of the exclusive fellowship of local centenarians. According to researcher Beth Jarosz, the San Diego Association of Governments estimated that 519 county residents considered themselves to be 100 or older in 2003. (In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 5341 centenarians in California -- more than in any other state.) Many centenarians are prostrate with ill health or dementia. But some have retained their mental faculties and are enjoying health that's fair or even better. Wilbur, Chester, Owen, and Alsten belong to this group. They're the ones I talked to while searching for the answer to this question: Is it worth living to 100?
It's a query that would have seemed absurd in 1904. Before the 20th Century, researchers have theorized, only one person on earth lived that long during any hundred-year period. Others have estimated that the odds of living to 100 have risen over the course of human history from one in 20 million to one in 50 (at least for females in long-lived countries).
Today the number of individuals passing that milestone is growing by about 8 percent annually in industrialized nations (compared to a 1 percent growth of the general population). In 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 37,306 centenarians in America. The tally had jumped to 50,454 by 2000, and some observers predict it may approach one million by the year 2050.
I didn't delude myself that I could divine the secret of living to extreme old age by talking to centenarians. That's a task for scientists, and one in which some progress has been made. One of the most active research groups is based in Boston, headed by a geriatrician named Thomas T. Perls. In 1994, he and his colleagues launched "the first North American comprehensive investigation of the world's oldest people." Called the New England Centenarian Study, this project initially included assessment of the mental, physical, and emotional health of centenarians living in eight communities around Boston.
By 1999 the researchers had met with 169 centenarians and administered neuropsychological and personality testing to about 40 percent of them. Perls and his associate, Margery Silver, published a number of their findings in a book aimed at lay readers, Living to 100. Among other things, the researchers found that four out of five men who made it to 100 "were in extremely good mental and physical health," whereas the women ranged from those with independence and vigor to others "who were completely dependent and uncommunicative." Women outnumbered men by five and a half to one. Overall, about three-quarters of the subjects "suffered from some level of dementia, but the remaining 25 percent were completely free of significant cognitive disorders."
In the past five years, the study has been expanded to enroll centenarians from throughout the United States and other countries. It now includes some 1500 subjects -- not only the centenarians themselves but also their siblings and children, as well as younger control subjects. From this work, the researchers have come to some conclusions about the things that do and do not appear to make a difference in whether someone reaches extreme old age. "Not all centenarians are alike," the study's website declares. Centenarians vary widely in years of education (none to postgraduate), socioeconomic status (very poor to very rich), religion, ethnicity, and dietary patterns (everything from strict vegetarians to high-fat meat-eaters). But "few centenarians are obese," the website points out, and any substantial smoking history is rare. Preliminary study suggests that "centenarians are better able to handle stress than the majority of people." Among the women, late childbearing has emerged as a common thread. "From our studies, a woman who naturally has a child after the age of 40 has a four times greater chance of living to 100 compared to women who do not." (The researchers think having a baby later in life "may be an indicator that the woman's reproductive system is aging slowly and that the rest of her body is as well.")
Perhaps the most striking conclusion is one articulated by Perls and Silver in their book: "Far from appearing weak, depressed, and confused, extremely old people often live surprisingly productive lives, learning new forms of artistic expression, and waking up each day with eager anticipation.... Even those who have lost those abilities in their hundreds are reported to have been robust as late as their nineties. Just as impressive as their ages are their attitudes. They have a fighting spirit. They take extraordinary measures to maintain their physical strength and thinking ability. They refuse to see age as a limitation on their enjoyment of life."
Generalizations and study results are one thing; real-life exemplars are another. I set about hunting for the latter, searching for news articles about local people who had celebrated their 100th birthdays within the past few years. I came up with a list of more than a dozen, but when I started trying to contact them, I had my nose rubbed in the grim realities of the centenarian realm (where the annual mortality rate hovers around 50 percent). Several individuals had died or grown too feeble to receive visitors. Others, like the 103-year-old resident of the Beaumont Village rest home in Sabre Springs, declined to talk to a reporter. But the Beaumont Village receptionist mentioned that Pearl Alsten might be a possibility. Pearl would turn 100 on January 18, 2004, she said.