Helen is 108 years old. She hates salads, vegetables, getting up early and just about everything that has to do with a healthy lifestyle. She loves rare hamburgers, chocolate, cocktails and nightlife in New York: all the exotic restaurants, Broadway shows, movie theaters -- where she recently saw "Iron Man 2" -- and the Metropolitan Opera. That's where she attended her first opera, "Samson et Delila," in 1918. It was a present from her father for her 17th birthday.
She also likes to smoke, of course: "I've been smoking for more than 80 years, all day long, every day. That's a whole lot of cigarettes," admits Helen, who has always been called "Happy" since she was a child. Then she giggles as she falls back into her soft armchair. This 108-year-old woman is so small and delicate that she almost seems to disappear into the plush furniture. She is wearing pleated pants, a pink cardigan with ruffles, a matching shawl and a number of pearl necklaces. Her short light-brown curls are perfectly blow-dried and she is wearing rouge and lipstick. Her skin is soft and nearly spotless, and her brown eyes sparkle merrily behind her glasses.
Since she had a stroke five years ago, her pronunciation has been slightly slurred. But her mind is alert, her curiosity as strong as ever, and her memory is often better than that of her 37-year-old Filipino caretaker. Happy is currently nursing a cold and should take it easy -- so she is receiving guests in her apartment on Park Avenue, and not at the Indian place around the corner or at one of her other favorite restaurants. "But on Saturday," says Happy, as she sits up again and beams, "on Saturday, we'll meet with my brother Irving for lunch. Okay?"
Around the World at 84
Helen Faith Keane Reichert, born Nov. 11, 1901 on Manhattan's Lower East Side as the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland, is a certified psychologist, a fashion expert, a former TV presenter and a professor emeritus at New York University. She was married to a cardiologist and has no children. When her husband died 25 years ago at the age of 88, she decided, at age 84, to travel around the world -- to Ireland, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, China, Japan and Australia. It was her way of coming to terms with her loss. "The only place I didn't visit was India," she says, "but I'd like to go there."
In her golden years, Happy, the indestructible woman, has attracted the attention of scientists -- together with her brother Irving, 104, and Peter, 100, and her sister Lee, who died in 2005 at the age of 102.
The world's presumably oldest quartet of siblings has provided blood samples and submitted to hours of interviews with age researchers from Boston and New York. These studies aim to resolve questions that have become increasingly pressing for the aging societies of industrialized countries: How do some lucky individuals manage to live 100 years and longer -- and still remain so incredibly healthy and active? How can it be that centenarians are generally less of a burden on the health system than ordinary mortals?
Life Expectancy Keeps Rising
Demographers have calculated that the life expectancy of people in the developed world has risen for the past 170 years by an average of three months per year. In Germany, it is currently 82 years for women and 77 years for men -- and there's no end in sight to this trend. How can we prevent this increasingly elderly population from being plagued by the typical afflictions of old age, including protracted illnesses and medical conditions such as arteriosclerosis, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's? Do the lives of individuals who have lived over a century provide recipes to combat the impending infirmities of a rapidly aging society?
There are some 50,000 people over the age of 100 in the United States, and just under 6,000 in Germany. One in seven million even live to the age of 110 and longer -- and there is even a special word for these living ancients: supercentenarians. Research teams worldwide are searching for centenarians and supercentenarians to comb through their genes, medical records and life stories for explanations.
Israeli physician Nir Barzilai and his staff at the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York have asked hundreds of centenarians hundreds of questions, including details of their living circumstances, nutrition, alcohol consumption, smoking, physical activity, sleep, education, status and spirituality -- all in the hope of finding commonalities.
'No Pattern' to Healthy Old Age
The results are sobering: "There is no pattern," says Barzilai, 54. "The usual recommendations for a healthy life -- not smoking, not drinking, plenty of exercise, a well-balanced diet, keeping your weight down -- they apply to us average people," says the researcher, "but not to them. Centenarians are in a class of their own." He pulls spreadsheets out of a drawer, adjusts his glasses and reads out loud: "At the age of 70, a total of 37 percent of our subjects were, according to their own statements, overweight, and 8 percent were obese; 37 percent were smokers, on average for 31 years; 44 percent said that they only moderately exercised; 20 percent never exercised."
But Barzilai is quick to point out that people shouldn't start questioning the importance of a healthy lifestyle: "Today's changes in lifestyle do in fact contribute to whether someone dies at the age of 85 or already at age 75." But in order to reach the age of 100, says the researcher, you need a special genetic make-up. "These people age differently. Slower. They end up dying of the same diseases that we do -- but 30 years later and usually quicker, without languishing for long periods."
Other researchers on aging have come to similar conclusions: "I'm slightly overweight and I don't get much exercise," says Stefan Schreiber, 48, head of the Healthy Aging research group at the University of Kiel, which has also conducted studies with centenarians. "If I firmly believed that it would make a difference, I would change that."