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Want to learn about aging? Ask the aged.

What is the first thing to do when your dad is turning 100? Call Willard Scott, of course! When Scott first began listing centenarians’ birthdays in 1980, there were only a few to report. Today, he receives over 400 each week. That was my first lesson about centenarians; their numbers are, relatively, out-booming the boomers.

In 1950, there were 200 centenarians in France. By 2000, their numbers had increased to 8,500. At this rate, this segment of the population will have increased 750-fold in one century! Over the course of human history, the odds of reaching 100 have risen from 1 in 20 million to 1 in 50.

Except for being treated for injuries received during World War II, my dad never needed regular medical care until age 97. He passed a road test at age 96 and the state of Florida granted him a six-year renewal of his driver’s license!

According to Dr. Thomas Perls of the New England Centenarian Center at Boston University Medical Center, these oldest of the old have a significantly lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, strokes, hypertension, cancer, and heart disease. They also tend to stay active mentally and physically. They tend to drive longer than would be expected.

When my mother died six years ago, everyone thought Dad would soon follow. He grieved with intense emotion but survived. Margery Silver, associate director of the New England Centenarian Study, has noted that centenarians “deal with stress well, bouncing back from tragic events that would devastate other people.”

Dad also stayed mentally sharp. Despite significant visual and hearing impairment, he kept up with current events. Unhindered by lack of education beyond eighth grade, he could do fairly complex math in his head, and his words were enhanced by the wisdom of experience. Sure enough, centenarian research shows that dementia is not an inevitable part of aging.

Medical research has not yet broken down the contributions of genetics and environment in centenarians. However, their dispositions seem to affect longevity. According to Michael Allard, a researcher at a French geriatric institute, centenarians tend to have “calm, communicative, cheerful, optimistic, and tolerant” personalities. He compares them to shipwreck survivors. They have made it through life’s storms where numerous others have succumbed. Willard Scott himself has said, “I’ve never met a 100-year-old grouch.”

Dad enjoyed life right to the very end. He loved being with family, meeting new people, and being generous. He still got a thrill from putting a few dollars on the ponies or slots. He spent his last few years preparing the family for the inevitable and made certain his love was communicated. Dad faced the end with courage and taught me, by example, to be a better person. Who could have imagined the best mentor in my life would be a centenarian?

Dr. Perls has summarized this beautifully “What we learn from centenarians is not how to live to 100, but to maximize the potential of the years we have.”

Dr. Ronald Rosen, MD, is board-certified in family medicine and has a subspecialty certification in geriatric medicine. He is also a Certified Medical Director in Long Term Care.  Dr. Rosen is medical director of North Shore Medical Center’s Charter Extended Care program, and of the Jewish Rehabilitation Center in Swampscott, Radius Healthcare Danvers, and the Lynn Home for Elderly Persons. He lives with his wife Melody in Marblehead where they are attempting to age gracefully.