In Marin County CA, where we have life expectancies greater than for most people in the US, even here, one stands out. She’s the county’s oldest resident, Pauline Angleman, 112 years old. She has been studied, celebrated, interviewed, honored by President and Michelle Obama and she continues to amaze doctors.
One of them studying her, Dr. John Newman, MD, PhD is a researcher at the Buck Institute where aging is studied from many perspectives. Dr. Newman is focused on developing treatments for age-related groups of symptoms, as well as being a geriatrician and the San Francisco Veterans’ Hospital. In other words, he knows a lot about the aging process.
Pauline, widowed for 30 years, lives alone, takes care of her 3 bedroom house, does her own yard work, climbs a ladder to pick fruit from a tree in her yard, and does her own shopping and cooking. Dr. Newman describes her as remarkably independent, “amazingly functional, vibrant and alive”. Wouldn’t we all like to be that way as we age?
Are there secrets to aging well? Is is lucky genes, or something else?
From Dr. Newman’s perspective, there is no single healthy aging gene. Rather, he says there is a constellation of genetic variants that show up in centenarians, along with variants that lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. He is studying those. He does identify two common personality traits that many super-centenarians share— a great attitude and determination. Pauline certainly demonstrates those in the way she lives her life.
Resilience is another quality shared by many super-agers. Pauline has that too. She developed a leg infection that might have gotten much worse for someone without her attitude. She got treatment and recovered. The ability to bounce back is at the heart of resilience. She did not make a big deal about it. She does not focus on losses and she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She has survived a fall, a pelvic fracture, a wrenched knee and having to give up driving. She was 110 when she voluntarily stopped driving.
In combing through accounts of Pauline, I found some other traits that seem to be related to other super-agers as well. One of them is experiencing joy. Pauline has a good time in her life and sets out to find it. She enjoys working in her yard, visiting neighbors, keeping up with the news and politics, and taking care of her home. She does not spend a lot of time sitting, nor lying in bed. She has always been socially engaged, participating in the local senior center activities until the pandemic. She was 82, married for 53 years when her husband died of Alzheimer’s disease. She did not slow down nor let that end her joy in life. She was a world traveler with friends and family members and recounts many adventures extending past age 100.
When asked about her advice for aging well she says to stay active, keep busy, keep moving, avoid taking a lot of medicines, drink plenty of water and lay off processed junk food. She eats a good breakfast every day.
Medical care for seniors seems very focused on medications for just about everything. But Pauline takes eye drops for glaucoma, an occasional over the counter remedy for leg cramps and that’s it. She says there is nothing wrong with her. That may be the biggest takeaway of all. Pauline says “medicines will kill you”. (Big Pharma would not like to hear from her.)
If you’re getting the idea that aging well is not just luck, you’re right. It’s a combination of some groups of genetic variants, as Dr. Newman finds, but he also finds that the effects of how you live your life outweigh the genetics you have by the time you reach your 80s, 90s or 100. So we can’t blame decrepitude on bad luck. We have to take responsibility for our own aging, as Pauline does. She takes initiative and interacts with other people often. She eats well and from what is reported, she avoids excesses. Her photos do not show an overweight person.
I don’t know about you, but I’d sure like to be like Pauline. She reminds me of something my late grandmother used to say about her contemporaries, also old as she was, complaining all the time about what was wrong with their bodies. She called it “the organ recital”—oh my back, oh my stomach, oh my knees, etc. She advised me to avoid such talk and focus on what you have that’s good. She had resilience, social engagement, determination and a great attitude too, living to age 93. Okay, Pauline and my grandmother—time to get outside and exercise today!