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What Does it Take to Live to 100?

We get tips from centenarians in our special 100th episode

cupcakes with candles on them

Getty Images/AARP

Bob:

Achieving 100 of anything is a big accomplishment. You could be a child celebrating your 100th day of class, or a bicyclist finishing your first century ride. But perhaps nothing tops living to see your 100th birthday.

Bob:

This is the 100th episode of an AARP Take On Today, and you're going to take a moment to celebrate the milestone that is living beyond a hundred years. Our guest will discuss how to improve your chances of living a longer happier life. We'll also hear from the family of a centenarian on how they think she managed to live so long. And later we'll reflect on the lessons we've learned throughout our show. That's coming up next.

Bob:

Hi, I'm Bob Edwards.

Mike:

I'm Mike Ellison.

Wilma:

And I'm Wilma Consul.

Bob:

With an AARP Take On Today.

Mike:

Turning 100 is an exceptional achievement. The CDC reports roughly 70,000 people living in the United States are centenarians, meaning about 0.2% of people make it to 100 in America. The good news is that the population of people who achieve this milestone is increasing, and so is the amount of research on longevity.

Mike:

Dr. Keith Whitfield, provost at Wayne State University in Detroit, has spent decades studying aging among African Americans because he says the field hasn't had enough African American representation. His research focuses on African American twins and their families to determine which factors that contribute to longevity are genetic, and which aren't. Welcome to the show, Dr. Whitfield.

Dr. Whitfield:

Thank you so much, Mike. Good to be here.

Mike:

Can you tell us a bit about your studies of older African Americans?

Dr. Whitfield:

The twin study was done back just before 2000. And what we did was to look at identical and fraternal twins and be able to look at different factors and say, "How much of that is genetic and how much is environmental?" And you do this through calculating the similarities and differences between identical twins and fraternal twins.

Dr. Whitfield:

One of the things that's interesting about that particular study is that in most twin studies, you need both twins to be in the study. But in studying African-Americans, one of the things that I noticed at first off, was that there were a lot of non-intact twin pairs, meaning that one of the members had passed away. So rather than trying to force a methodology, I just said, "If we find somebody who said that they were even a part of a pair of a twin pair, but maybe one passed away, we'll interview them and see maybe if we can interview some of their siblings or another relative or something," it's usually siblings.

Mike:

What are some of the findings that might surprise people?

Dr. Whitfield:

I think when people think about the brain and intellect and things like that, that they think that it's all genetic. And what you find in African Americans is that maybe only about half of those factors actually are genetic and the rest of them are environmental.

Dr. Whitfield:

I think with health, it's another thing that we think of as biological and we try to equate it with genetics. And what we found was it's a lot of environmental influences for things like average peak expiratory flow, it's lung function. Also looking at things like hypertension, a lot of environmental factors play a role. And with African Americans, as one might assume, it is those environmental insults, actually, that end up creating variability, even within a pair of twins.

Mike:

And when you say environmental, so for example, a lot of attention has been given to Flint because of the water situation. But as you may know in Detroit, there's been a big effort to eliminate lead from a lot of the homes that our children are growing up in. Are those the kinds of environmental factors you're talking about?

Dr. Whitfield:

That and more. It's things like education, it's things like experiences with discrimination, and what we do and who we're around.

Mike:

As it relates to the stress levels within African Americans and how racism, systemic racism, and structural racism and discrimination that we experience on a weekly, if not daily basis, how does that affect our stress levels? And how does that affect our longevity?

Dr. Whitfield:

We do have these things in our environmental insults that actually then do impact the biology of our body. And not only our bodies, but our brains as well. And so those stress hormones, there's cortisol and then there's some others as well, they do get heightened, changed, impacted by monthly, weekly, daily stress that African Americans experience.

Dr. Whitfield:

One of the hypotheses that I have is that stress is learned to an extent. If you think of, so where would you learn stress from? It happens very early because we carry it throughout life. So it comes, I think, from the family unit. We learned some of what we understand about stress from our family, and we learn it in lots of ways.

Dr. Whitfield:

I mean, all of us, when we become adults, I think it's interesting because we typically have that moment where we say, "Man, I'm just like my dad," or, "Man, I'm just like my mom." And we see those similarities that, there may be things that they're inherited because behaviors are inherited. Some of them, but for many of them, they're learned.

Dr. Whitfield:

Let's think about African Americans and African American young people. To say when the police come in, that's a dangerous situation. You need to be on guard, you need to make sure you put your hands up. And so they are sharing about that stressful experience and how you should respond to it. And so that's an easy, simple example that happens with a lot of African American families.

Dr. Whitfield:

I think about it that my dad told me that and I told my son that, and now my son is actually telling his kids some of those same things. And so there are things that are passed on down through generations as well.

Mike:

What about money and class? Does that affect your potential for long life?

Dr. Whitfield:

Money for African-American's, even jobs for African-Americans, oftentimes they're paid less. They may have more education, but have a lower job. These are things that systemic racism actually impacts. And so it is a factor that's there. Being able to have resources for many African Americans, that is one of the strengths sometimes that we have with family is that sometimes we can be a collective. But there's such variability. You can't say that that's the way African American families are. We're all very, very different.

Dr. Whitfield:

But oftentimes, even when you see African Americans who were in the south who were either sharecroppers working land or on their own land, the strength of the family was critically important. But that also sometimes went directly in opposition to being able to pursue more education because you were needed back on the farm.

Dr. Whitfield:

Everybody experiences stress. It is not limited just to African Americans. So my model is actually saying, "I think we're going to learn a lot more about longevity actually by studying the people that have the least probability of getting to later life and to seeing what they do."

Mike:

One of the things I understand about your research is that one of the biggest factors in living, not just a long life, right? Because we talk about longevity, but I think we make the assumption that longer is better. If it's a long, happy life, that's great. If it's a long, miserable life, that's pretty rough. But if you live to be 100 plus, then you probably have had a good life. You've had reasons to be happy and joyful and optimistic and keep going. And I think the biggest factor that your research has found is that it's about selective relationships. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Dr. Whitfield:

My research supports some of the things that are found by Laura Carstensen. She looks and looks at people and finds that as they grow older, they become more selective about those relationships. But I think this particularly is something that African Americans are taught often. And that is my dad used to say it, "You can't be an eagle if you soar with turkeys," meaning that the people that you select may be the people that take you out, or the people that you select may be the people that lift you up.

Mike:

What advice would you give to a younger person who wants to live a long, happy life?

Dr. Whitfield:

Several things. One, talk to your oldest relative and talk to them about what they used to do and how they did things and what they think is important because you got to learn those lessons.

Dr. Whitfield:

Number two, you should make sure that you stay physically active because staying active is one of the things that both can relieve physical stress and also strengthens your body. Not a guarantee, but it does help.

Dr. Whitfield:

Also follow my dad's line of reasoning. Make sure that you are not trying to be an eagle while you're soaring with turkeys. That the people around you have a powerful impact on who you are and what you do, how you see things, how you stress, how you cope throughout your lifespan, not just when you're a child.

Dr. Whitfield:

For African Americans, one of the other things is, is make sure that you take care of your health, both your physical health and your mental health. Many of us have beliefs that have been passed down through our families about coming to and talking to mental health professionals. Dealing with that stress, dealing with depression, dealing with anxiety, all of those things that are more minor mental health issues versus, and I'm making a distinction between those and more serious ones like schizophrenia or bipolar disease or something like that. We need to get over that part of it because we need to make sure that we're taking care of our mental health as much as we take care of our physical health.

Dr. Whitfield:

And for our physical health, particularly African American men, I'm sorry, and I'm one of them and I just have to fight it myself all the time to make sure I do what I'm supposed to do. We got to go to the doctor. We got to make sure that we're taking care of ourselves. We got to use preventative care to be able to make sure that we're monitoring and being as healthy as we can be. Those are the things that are going to help to round out this life.

Mike:

How important is it having neighbors around you or a network, a community of people that you see and talk to on a regular basis? Because part of what is afflicting people so much as it relates to COVID is the loneliness and just isolation. How important is it to have people around you?

Dr. Whitfield:

When I look at cognition, oftentimes I will put in a measure that we have that social support. And what you see too, is that people who are giving social support have better cognition. I can give you a whole paper or a whole lecture on why we think that is, but there are these relationships that exist between that social interaction and cognitive functioning.

Dr. Whitfield:

It's to just reify your point of that yes, it is very important, having those connections. And while we have to be physically apart from one another, that doesn't mean that we don't have to be emotionally apart from people.

Dr. Whitfield:

My mother, I'm glad she's not on here because she will tell you how I don't call enough. But when we call, we can easily do a couple of hours and talk about, it seems like we don't talk about nothing. I get off the phone and say, "What did we just spend two hours talking about?" But I can tell too, that it was something that she needed and then I try to do a little better next time, make sure I call her back a little sooner to make sure that we're filling in for that lack of social contact that people have. Because there is research that suggests that it does impact our physical health. It definitely impacts our mental health. And so at this time when we're having to be safe by following good public health behaviors by making sure that physically distant from one another, we need to make sure, particularly for our older, I think, particularly for our family.

Dr. Whitfield:

And I would just say, I consider my family not only my biological relatives, but also my Wayne State family that I have that I try to occasionally, I'll just send somebody a text and just say, "How are you doing?" Making sure that you keep those contacts up for people because we will get through COVID through being a community. We'll, of course, have our brilliant scientists be able to find vaccines and be able to ultimately make us so that we can be safe. But in the meantime, the way in which we will survive is through being communities, being a community and being connected to one another. That's what's going to help us be able to get by.

Wilma:

We couldn’t do this 100th episode without talking to centenarians. Here in the nation’s capital, the Mayor’s Office on Aging and Community Living has celebrated District residents 100 years old and older for more than three decades.

 

Dorothy:

Dorothy M Bogges. I was born in Louisville, Kentucky on May 30, 1917. And came to Washington DC April 1941 to work at which was called the war department at the time. And they were recruiting typists. And I came here from Atlanta University where I was in the school of social work, went to Howard University to complete my degree and since then worked with the DC department in the hospitals. I was a medical social worker.

Dora Credel:

My name is Dora S. Credel. I was born in Wilson, North Carolina. I am 108 years old.

Dora Thompson:

I’m Dora Credel Thompson and I’m her daughter. Tell them how old you’ll be July 21st.

Dora Credel:

109.

Wilma:

 

At 109 years old in two weeks, Dora S. Credle will be DC’s oldest centenarian. We ask: How does one live to be a hundred and beyond?

Dora Credel:

Well I just took care of myself, got plenty of rest and stayed busy all the time, working, playing, cooking doing everything.

Dora Thompson:

Her favorite was cooking rolls and my brother and I, we used to fight over them they were so good.

Dorothy:

Well I think the main thing is to be sure to keep active, socially and physically. It broadens your mind and your spirit and everything. And I’ve always walked a lot and I think that means so much to your health to get out in the fresh air and everything. And then to get plenty of rest, which I do. Of course, I can’t recommend about food because I love sweets too much.

Dora Credle:

I mostly ate most anything.

Dora Thompson:

You like pigs feet.

Dora Credel:

I used to eat pig feets, pork chops, chicken fried

Dora Thompson:

She likes sweets, like pastries

Wilma:

What about drinking? Do you drink?

Dora Credel:

Well I go to parties and I’m not a drinker but I like a taste sometimes.

Wilma:

I do too!

Wilma:

I heard you’re still driving?

Dorothy:

Well that I have to keep under cover. I do still drive but only to the drive. But soon I’ll have my wings clipped after 2021 because that’s when my license will expire. And I’m not gonna go down there and expect them to give me five more years. So I’m just gonna have to hang it up.

Dora Credel:

I had a beautiful life, I can’t really say that I didn’t.

Dora Thompson:

Tell them about your father.

Dora Credel:

My father was a Baptist minister. I was raised up with Jesus Christ in me. I feel like today that’s why God gave me a long life.

Wilma:

Ms. Credle and Ms. Boggess both feel blessed to live long and happy. But I have to tell you…it’s even more of a blessing to be a good friend of one.

 

Dena:

 

My name is Dena May Cummings and my birthday is September 7, 1915 from Dublin, Georgia.

 

Wilma:

 

I met Ms. Cummings in 2014, when she was 99 years old. Over the years, she’s been the most famous person on my Facebook posts. Wherever I went in the world, someone asked — how’s your friend, Ms. Cummings.

 

On her 104th birthday last year, her family gathered as we always did on her centennial birthdays. We didn’t know it was going to her last. My dear friend, Dena Pryor Cummings, joined her Creator in January 2020. We took her back home to Georgia to rest peacefully beside her husband.

 

All of Ms. Cummings children agree that their mother enjoyed a long life because of her faith and her service to others.

 

Betty:

 

She was a good mother, a good friend, very strong willed. She babysat all of our grandchildren and some of the neighbor’s children. She was active in the church. She was the flower lady.. She was a gardener. She always had her flowers. She was always very active. I mean, she wasn’t one to sit down.

 

Connie:

 

Everybody loved my mother. Everybody. People just ride by, she’d sit on the porch, and say “Hey, Ms. Cummings!” She’d just wave, she didn’t know who it was. She always ate healthy. She came up on a farm and she always tried to get us to eat healthy. Of course, we didn’t really like the food, but momma cooked it, we had to eat it.

 

Daniel:

 

Hard worker. Working in the yard and doing all the outside working. We always been just like buddies basically.

 

Randolph:

 

Well the main reason is because she honored her mother and father. That’s the main reason why she lived so long. And because she was a Christian woman and believed in scripture, which says honor your mother and father and your days shall be long. So we have to start with that basis and then after that she took care of herself she never abused herself.

 

Wilma:

 

Her having lived that long, how does that effect how you take care of yourself?

 

Randolph:

 

Health wise I don’t want to be in any type of stressful situations. I work for myself, so I work in a comfortable environment. I don’t eat the wrong things. I don’t drink or smoke.

 

Ralph:

 

We used to say she never worked until we grew and found out how much she did at home. She didn’t go to a job, but she did all her work in the house. Plus I was sick well into my teens. Ya know, she just lived a good life. She had the right attitude.

 

Wilma:

 

How are you taking care of yourself?

 

Ralph:

 

Well I’m financially okay, and I don’t live large no more. I pray every morning when I go to work, I pray for our family, our friends and associates we deal with everyday. I just keep a clear conscience. I don’t go to bed worrying about crazy stuff.

 

Wilma:

 

What do you miss most about Ms. Cummings?

 

Ralph:

 

Well I don’t miss her because it’s like she’s still here. I mean she might not be here in the flesh, but she’s still here with us. And I think about her all the time, because she always said “my baby.” I was the baby. And she just clung to me like I’m still her baby. And every time I think about it, just tears of joy to have a mother like she was.

 

Wilma:

The voices of Ms. Cummings children, from the oldest to the youngest: Betty, Connie, Daniel and the twins Randolph and Ralph.

 

I miss my friend a lot. But Ms. Cummings left me with her greatest legacy…her family who now considers me one of their own.

Bob:

100 episodes in, and we're still learning about ways older adults can take on today’s biggest challenges -- whether it be age discrimination, racial injustice, or a global health crisis.

Just today, we learned from Dr. Whitfield that social isolation is a roadblock to living a long, happy life. And we learned that choosing to surround yourself with people who will care for you is a good way to eliminate that roadblock, even if you have to reach out virtually.

It’s especially important to be aware of social isolation during the pandemic. To assess if you’re at risk, visit Connect-2-affect dot org – that’s connect, the number “two,” affect dot org. To find help in your community, or lend a hand yourself, visit AARP Community Connections dot org.

We want to thank our listeners for learning with us for the past 100 episodes. Mike, what’s something you’ve learned from the podcast?

Mike:

Well, I think Bob, it's important that you say learning with us. We learn together. And I think the most important thing that I've learned is that there are many voices and many perspectives surrounding every issue. And at the end of the day, I think they're all equally important.

Bob:

And Wilma, how about you?

Wilma:

Well, mine is not as profound. I just learned that I'm part of the older adult population. But what about you, Bob? What have you learned from the podcast? You were here from the beginning.

Mike:

Yeah, Bob we're all on you and the platform you built, man.

Bob:

I'm learning from you guys every day. That's great. I'm the ARP member, but we're leaping generations talking to you guys.

Wilma:

I'm a member now too.

Mike:

I'm not far away. I'm on my way.

Wilma:

Soon you'll get that call and that card invitation.

Mike:

You know what I say? I say, can't wait. Because one thing that I have learned also actually in talking to a lot of our guests, especially every birthday it's a celebration and it's a privilege to age. Aging is definitely, it's a privilege that everyone doesn't get. I look forward to becoming a member and I definitely look forward to not just the resources, but I'm definitely looking forward to the discounts.

Bob:

Mike, who did you enjoy hearing on this podcast?

Mike:

There are too many to name, but I'll name a few. I really enjoyed speaking with Doris Dukes from AARP Foundation Experience Corps. Her perspective and her work and her approach to her work was fantastic.

Doris Dukes:

You come into a level where A child reaches the third grade and if they are not reading proficiently by that age, their chances of dropping out of high school is going to be with a higher percentage.

Mike:

I enjoyed speaking with Sam McClure when we did the episode about the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.

Sam McClure:

Each different segment within LGBT, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender have a different set of health disparities. People who are over 50 in this community have experienced different types of marginalization, sometimes over and over and over.

Mike:

And my first episode with Jack Gross, I really enjoyed just learning the perspective of how age is treated or looked upon in the workplace.

Jack Gross:

We prayed about it, agonized about it and finally just decided that this just isn't right. Somebody has to step up and say, "You can't do these things." It's obvious you can't come in and demote everybody over 50 on the same day and not expect to get challenged on it.

Mike:

Keith Whitfield, most recently talking about longevity, a lot of lessons to learn there. And last but surely not least because I come out of the hip hop generation, I loved talking with Nick Huff Barili about hip hop and how people are aging in the genre and the art form and its impact on global culture.

Nick Huff Barili:

I think it's important to have these conversations and really create a platform where we take the stigma out of growing older, because I think there's just in the series alone talking to these four pioneers, there's so much wisdom there. There's so much wisdom that should be passed down to younger generations.

Mike:

Absolutely.

Bob:

And Wilma, how about you?

Wilma:

I enjoyed talking to Robert Rice because I had never met a person who worked in a funeral home who really enjoyed it. And it's because of, he found his purpose in it's a service to the people who were left behind. I really found that really heartwarming.

Robert Rice:

We have been told all our lives, you're never too old to learn. Be willing to step out there, do something that you feel would be a passion for you and it won't feel like work. Although I'm relatively new in this industry, it doesn't feel like work to me because I like it. Presenting someone in their best light to the family one last time.

Wilma:

And Feeding America, talking to the executive director.

Speaker 9:

We're anticipating another 17 million Americans will be experiencing food insecurity as a result of the pandemic and the economic downturn. And sadly, many of those folks are seniors.

Wilma:

Bob, who did you enjoy talking to?

Bob:

Well, let's see, Tommy John comes to mind, the baseball pitcher who has a specific kind of surgery, arm surgery named for him who seemed rather upset that the surgery is too prolific. There are a lot of young men having the surgery who really don't need it and that upset him very much.

Tommy John:

Back then, if you went in and said, "My elbow is killing me." Oh, kid, all right, you're released boom. And you're back home. You kept quiet. You didn't say anything because your job was to pitch, your job was to play and they couldn't have guys on the disabled list in their organization. That's the way baseball was back in the early, early sixties.

Bob:

Yeah. Just rub some dirt on it.

Tommy John:

Rub some dirt on it. Yep, exactly.

Bob:

And of course, Frank Abagnale, who is so helpful to AARP and its members in helping us look out for fraud. It is astonishing how vulnerable people think we are when we reach the 50 plus years.

Frank Abagnale:

As unfortunately, senior folks are very honest individuals and because they're honest, they don't have a deceptive mind so when they get a phone call, they get an email, they get a letter, they believe it's the truth because they're coming from another generation when things were told to us that were true and we could believe they were true.

Bob:

Mike, what do you think it means to take on today?

Mike:

I think it means to accept the challenge of being a human in this global community on a daily basis and taking it on, accepting all that comes with this experience we call life. Approaching it with a positive attitude and hopefully standing on the right side of history, addressing issues that need to be addressed.

Wilma:

If you like this episode, please comment on our podcast page at aarp.org/podcasts or email us at newspodcast@aarp.org.

Mike:

And big thanks to our news team.

Bob:

Producers Colby Nelson and Danny Alarcon.

Wilma:

Production assistant Bridget Launi.

Mike:

Engineer Julio Gonzalez.

Bob:

Executive producer Jason Young.

Wilma:

For an AARP Take on Today, I'm Wilma Consul.

Mike:

I'm Mike Ellison.

Bob:

I'm Bob Edwards. Thanks for listening.

For our special 100th episode, we talked to aging expert Dr. Keith Whitfield and real-life centenarians about what it takes to live to 100 and beyond. Plus, our hosts Bob Edwards, Wilma Consul and Mike Ellison look back on their favorite episodes.

For more information on social isolation or ways to get connected, visit connect2affect.org.

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