When Jim Craig gave a recent talk on people who are 100 years old or older – and what it takes to stretch a person’s lifespan out so long – he left out one important fact:
He spoke from experience, because he’s 100 years old himself.
Or at least he is now, since January 23. But he delivered his Westminster Institute of Lifelong Learning (WILL) lecture 12 days earlier, on the 11th, and he didn’t want to tempt fate: “It was before my birthday. I didn’t want to put a hex on it.”
In the lecture, which you can still watch online, he spoke of centenarians he has known, including his own grandfather, who hit three digits back in 1964. That was truly a big deal at the time, drawing news coverage, and even a letter of recognition from President Johnson.
Not everyone in the Craig family enjoys such an extended life. Jim’s father died at 57. But his mother made it to 94 – and the grandfather who lived to 101 was her father.
Jim’s talk went from blood family to the WCBR family, celebrating such residents as “my hero” C. Knight Aldrich, a physician (like Jim himself) who “remained intellectually active and concerned about other members of the community, almost until his death.” At the age of 101, in 2015, he published a paper on what he’d learned from working with other seniors, in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. It was titled “Give Sorrow Words: Working With Bereavement in Senior Residential Settings.”
He talked a bit about famous people of accomplishment who passed the 100 mark – entertainer Bob Hope, artist Grandma Moses, businessman David Rockefeller, diplomat George Kennan, composer Irving Berlin, and philanthropist and matriarch Rose Kennedy. Of course, he acknowledged, most of them were celebrated for what they had done when they were much younger, since the years approaching 100 are usually “not marked by creativity and invention.”
But that doesn’t mean centenarians don’t get things done. He cited cases of folks who had completed a marathon, directed a feature film, modeled for British Vogue, received a high school diploma (at 111), and climbed Mount Fuji. A somewhat sadder landmark was achieved by a man who barricaded himself and was killed in a shootout with police – at 107.
One of his favorite figures is Jeanne Louise Calment of Arles, France, who lived to the age of 122 (although some have disputed that number). When she was 90, a man bought the apartment in which she was living, under a deal allowing her to live in it the rest of her life. He agreed to pay $400 a month until she died, at which point the apartment would belong to him. At the age of 77, the buyer died, and his widow kept paying – for a total of 32 years. The couple ended up paying more than twice the value of the apartment.
“Be careful when transacting business with a centenarian,” said Jim.
So how does one live to be 100 and more?
Jim has studied the statistics, and a number of factors are beyond your control. Jim puts them under the heading of “Be Lucky.” The factors include:
- Be born in a favorable zip code. (You’re more likely to live longer in Hawaii than West Virginia.)
- Be a member of a longer-living ethnic group. Again, not something you get to choose.
- Inherit “longevity genes.”
It’s also best to be born female. Current life expectancy in the U.S. is 81 for women, and 76 for men. Why do women live longer? Some reasons he identifies:
- Men are more likely to smoke, drink and take risks.
- Estrogen protects against hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol, for us laypeople) and heart disease.
- Women have stronger immune systems.
- Differences in mitochondrial DNA.
Sure, there are things you can do to stay healthier and live longer – exercise, proper diet, and avoiding tobacco, alcohol and drug abuse – but while Jim himself has made it, he has no magic formula to impart.
He can’t really point to anything he has done that’s impressive in terms of exercise or diet, beyond the fact that “I’ve tried to be moderate.”
He says there are some interesting strategies out there that have increased the lifespan in experimental animals and are now being tried in humans. These include reducing caloric intake by decreasing food intake two days each week and taking certain drugs.
Not that he can tell us for sure. “I haven’t done that,” he says. “I think it’s a little late to start.”