The Secrets of the Supercentenarians Scientists Seek To Unlock Key to Longer Lives
Part 2: No Retirement at 104
Obesity, smoking and an extremely low level of physical activity certainly don't promote good health. But the interviews have revealed no magic formula for how we should live, eat and behave to reach a ripe old age: "None of the centenarians went on an algae diet," he quips. He has noticed one thing that they have in common, though, says Schreiber: "Many of them have only kissed one woman in their lives" -- kissed, mind you, he says again, and laughs. "Perhaps that is the essence of why someone becomes 100?"
Happy's younger brother Irving, 104, can be found on weekdays between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. in a parallel street located three blocks away from his sister's apartment, in his office on the 22nd floor of a skyscraper on Madison Avenue. Kahn Brothers is the name of the investment firm that he and two of his three sons founded in 1978. His eldest son -- today age 72 -- retired five years ago.
Irving Kahn, a small, plump man with his hair precisely parted to the right, and with reading glasses and a hearing aid, is sitting in front of a flat screen, and on his desk lie piles of paper and a large magnifying glass. He has no intention of quitting: "I'm interested in a wide range of industries and technologies," he explains, "and I'm a passionate reader. That's why being an investor is the perfect job for me." Since his wife's death 14 years ago, he has actually worked even more: "I simply wasn't able to find anyone else as interesting as the woman I shared a bed with for 65 years."
After breaking off his studies and working for years as a teaching assistant under the legendary economist Benjamin Graham at Columbia University, Kahn got his debut on Wall Street in 1928. Shortly thereafter, as the Great Depression gripped the country, he was relatively fortunate, he says: "My salary was reduced to $60 a week. I remember my boss asking me: Why do you look so happy? And I replied: I thought you were going to fire me."
'Stay In Motion, Be Open'
What is his personal recipe for living to the age of 100? Irving raises his thumb, index and middle finger into the air and starts pontificating: "First, you need a nutritious diet, with a lot of vegetables and salads. Second, get plenty of fresh air. Third, don't drink, don't smoke. I drink at most one glass of wine every three months."
His ring finger and pinkie also shoot into the air as the old expert starts talking up a storm: "Fourth, you have to always stay in motion, be open, get to know people from all over the world. And, fifth, have a lot of interests and learn things that you can't do yet -- that keeps you young!"
And what about his oldest sister? Irving shakes his head and murmurs to himself. "Sure," he says, a bit miffed, "that's an old joke in our family. Happy loves to have her picture taken with a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other."
Irving's fourth and fifth commandments have been scientifically proven, however: "We've found a few interesting personality traits," says Tom Perls, 50, from Boston University, who directs the New England Centenarian Study, the largest research project of its kind in the world, with some 2,600 participants. "Our subjects are generally extroverted and gregarious and have a stable social network."
Furthermore, he says that they aren't neurotic -- in other words, they don't bemoan life's difficulties; they are masters of the art of letting go. Stefan Schreiber, the medical researcher in Kiel, concurs: "This alertness of the mind, the openness, it's remarkable -- especially when you consider that these people haven't had easy lives. They have experienced war, hunger and poverty."
Is it possible to extend our lives with high spirits and optimism? Or are centenarians inherently blessed with a cheerful disposition, making them less susceptible to stress and disease? "We don't know how much of this is genetically determined," says Perls. "But we learn how useful it is to come out of your shell."
"I honestly have no idea why I've grown so old," says Peter, 100, the baby of the Kahn family. He lived "absolutely normally," never paid a great deal of attention to his health and never thought much about his age, he says.
Like his sister Happy, Peter also Americanized his last name. As Peter Keane he pursued a career in show business -- as a photographer and cinematographer in Hollywood. He was there when "Gone with the Wind" was filmed in the late 1930s. And when the young Judy Garland sang the legendary "Over the Rainbow" in "The Wizard of Oz," Peter says that the entire crew broke out in tears.
Genes Predict Longevity
Physically speaking, the youngest is the frailest of the three. He went blind three years ago, and he has had to wear a neck brace ever since he took a bad fall. He rarely leaves his house in Westport, Connecticut. His favorite activity is sitting in front of the fireplace in the living room and listening to mystery stories, along with scientific and works of historical fiction.
Peter's wife Beth, 66, with whom he has been married for 26 years, takes care of him and directs him when he blindly gropes his way around the house with his walker. He could also sit in a wheelchair and allow himself to be pushed, which would be easier and faster -- but he would rather walk.
They met at a party thrown by some friends, recalls Beth. She didn't notice his age, she says, and smiles. "I only thought: What a charming man!" Now Peter is also smiling. He doesn't understand much about genetic research, he says, "but the researchers maintain that I have unusual genes."
A few weeks ago, the Boston research group working under Perls caused quite a stir worldwide: In the academic journal Science, the researchers reported that they had discovered the 150 genetic variants in the genome of centenarians. They said that they could use these genes to predict a person's longevity with 77-percent accuracy. In the article, they wrote that the variants were grouped in 19 typical genetic signatures.
- Part 1: Scientists Seek To Unlock Key to Longer Lives
- Part 2: No Retirement at 104
- Part 3: A Milestone in Aging Research