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This Is What 100 Looks Like

Centenarians reflect on their longevity and share advice for living a very long life

spinner image three centenarians from left gladys mcgarey and then harriet harris both age one hundred and two and william aho age one hundred and five
Gladys McGarey, age 102; Harriet Harris, age 102; and William Aho, age 105
Cassidy Araiza; Kevin J. Miyazaki, Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo

There are an estimated 90,000 centenarians living in the U.S. It’s a small percentage of the population, yes, but it’s a number that’s expected to keep increasing. By 2060, there could be about 600,000 people who are 100 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

What’s it take to get there? That’s a question geriatrician Thomas Perls, M.D., has been investigating for decades with the New England Centenarian Study, based at Boston University’s Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. As expected, there’s no miracle drug or radical regimen that will guarantee centenarian status. Scientists say environment and lifestyle both play a role, as do genetics — especially for those who live past 100.

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“Look at your family history,” Perls says. If people are living into their 90s and beyond, “I think that can be very, very good news for you.” It’s all the more reason to “set your sights high and do the right things to help facilitate and enable that tremendous gift that you’ve been given,” Perls adds.

This means exercise, eat right, don’t smoke, socialize with others and make sure you’re getting enough sleep — that’s what the research says, at least.

“I think if you do all those things, you will improve your chances,” says one 105-year-old Navy veteran and centenarian study participant from Kingsport, Tennessee, who asked to be identified only by his initials, R.W.M. “That won’t guarantee you’re going to live to 100, I just think it sure does help.”

AARP spoke with three other centenarians about their history, their habits and their advice for people who want to make it to 100 and beyond.

spinner image gladys mc garey smiling and sitting in a recliner in her home she is one hundred and two years old
Dr. Gladys McGarey at her home in Scottsdale, AZ on August 24, 2023.
Cassidy Araiza

Gladys McGarey, 102

Just as World War II was ending, Gladys McGarey, M.D., was starting her career in medicine at a hospital in Cincinnati, where she was the first female intern. That was nearly 80 years ago, and McGarey hasn’t stopped working since. After all, “there’s work that needs to be done,” the Scottsdale, Arizona, centenarian says.

She released a book this year, The Well-Lived Life: A 102-Year-Old Doctor’s Six Secrets to Health and Happiness at Every Age. In it, McGarey, who was a cofounder of the American Holistic Medical Association, outlines advice for others hoping to live — and enjoy — a long life.  

Her recommendations deviate from the usual, focusing instead on principles such as listening to and laughing with others, and understanding your purpose in life.  

“We all have a reason to be here at the time that we’re here. And the reason isn’t the same for everyone,” McGarey says. She encourages people to think of themselves as one piece in a very large jigsaw puzzle. “On all sides of our being, we touch other people. There isn’t one of us that isn’t important in our own way,” she says.

spinner image harriet harris sits at her dining room table at home she is one hundred and two years old in november twenty twenty three
Harriet Harris, who is 102 years old, in her Pekin, IL home. 
Kevin J. Miyazaki

Harriet Harris, 102

Was it any habits or behaviors that earned Harriet Harris her centenarian status? “Well, not really,” the Pekin, Illinois, resident says.

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“I smoked some when I was younger, but it was just to be cool,” says Harris, who is also part of the New England Centenarian Study. Though she was never much of a drinker, she also wasn’t an athlete — “I’m on the lazy side,” she laughs — and “always craved sweets.”

Harris was, however, actively involved with her church, even serving as the treasurer for 45 years; and she stayed socially engaged playing bridge. Plus, she’s got some good genes.

Her father was 96 when he passed away, and up until about two months shy of his death, he routinely came into the small department store the family ran downtown. Harris has cousins who lived into their late 90s, and ancestors who celebrated birthdays decades beyond the life expectancy of the time. Even so, her long life has surprised her.

“I thought maybe I’d get to 80 years, the turn of the century. I truly never expected to make it this far along,” Harris says. 

spinner image william aho age one hundred and five sits in a chair in his home
William Aho, a UConn natural science professor emeritus and currently the oldest living UConn professor at 105 years old, poses for a photo in his home in Mansfield on May 25, 2023. 
Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo

William Aho, 105

“I guess my life has been interesting all the way along,” says William Aho, a 105-year-old participant in the New England Centenarian Study.

The World War II veteran says his decades have been filled with good friends, good family and an abundance of activities — from golfing to skiing to boating to hiking. He’s also had a chance to see the world, thanks to a long career in poultry science.

Aho’s advice for others who want to live as long? “Inherit good genes,” the Storrs, Connecticut, resident and University of Connecticut professor emeritus says. “I know a lot of people who take good care of themselves that don’t last as long.”

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