Feature Archive

Live Long, Live Well

What's the secret to a longer-than-average lifespan?

WebMD Feature

May 29, 2000 -- Lily Hearst is nearly 103 years old. All her life she has been healthy and active -- skiing, skating, canoeing. The Berkeley, Calif., centenarian makes it a point to swim every day. She also continues to teach piano, to advanced students only, at the senior center where she eats lunch each day.

Hearst is among the unprecedented number of people now living to 100 and beyond, many of them in startlingly good health. At the end of the 19th century, when she was born, about one in 100,000 Americans was 100 or more years old. Today, the figure is one in 8,000 to 10,000 and climbing. And for each of these centenarians, there are many people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s who retain a level of vigor that defies all stereotypes of the elderly. (See Let the Senior Games Begin.)

Who can expect to blow out 100 candles someday? "To live to the 100s," says Thomas Perls, MD, MPH, "I would wager you need what I call genetic booster rockets." Perls, acting chief of gerontology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, is the founder and director of the ongoing New England Centenarian Study (NECS), and a co-author of Living to 100: Lessons in Living to Your Maximum Potential at Any Age.