Happy 100th Birthday, Emma!

Healthy Aging: It’s not the years in our lives, but the life in our years!

Emma's 99th Birthday

This is Emma, celebrating her 99th birthday last year. She’d rather talk politics than weather and she loves to play harmonica. She’ll be playing for friends and an extensive family this Saturday (1/25/14), when they come together to celebrate Birthday Number 100. How did Emma get to become a centenarian?

Her parents lived on an acreage on the edge of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, when Emma was born in 1914. She was raised during a time when nearly half of the U.S. population lived in rural areas (49% in 1920). Gardens were “free food” for anyone with a yard. Growing your own food, hunting, fishing, and foraging were common activities. Emma got plenty of exercise, ate mostly organic food, and drank raw milk.

Organic food is what gardeners and farmers raised before pesticides became big business in the mid-1940s. A few cows ensured your family plenty of milk. Everyone drank the full fat version, thinking that the bluish cast of skimmed milk made that fine for baby calves and piglets, but not so much the family. People knew how to churn butter. Farmers nurtured animals mainly for eggs, milk, and cash; they limited eating them.

Emma has a positive outlook (which, statistically, contributes to longevity), and yes, she has great genes for health and longevity.

I grew up on a farm, too, raising pigs, then turkeys, then pigs again, and growing fruit, vegetable, and flower gardens. A great cucumber crop meant picking and pickling in August, no matter how hot and buggy the weather. Milking a small herd of cows before school and in the evenings taught my siblings and me discipline, earned us cash, and provided fresh milk, butter, and the occasional ice cream. We lived on what we raised, fished, trapped, and foraged, keeping the grocery store bills to a minimum. But I moved to the city and I like this life. With my genes, I don’t think I’ll reach 100, but I’d like to stay active, and maybe even pain-free, until the end.

So this isn’t a New Year’s Resolution, but more of a reminder from research* on how long-lived populations get to be long-lived:

  1. Being active is a regular part of daily routines
  2. Eating to "not-quite-full" (in Okinawa they say: hara hachi bu—stop eating when you are about 80% full)
  3. Eating more beans, nuts, vegetables, whole grains, and fruits and less meat and processed foods
  4. Drinking red wine in moderation
  5. Having a plan for living and a reason to get up in the morning
  6. Making time to relieve stress
  7. Being an active part of a spiritual community
  8. Upholding rituals and traditions and making family a priority
  9. Surrounding yourself with people who share long-life values—pick buddies who will support (not sabotage) your good intentions!

So here’s to my friend Margaret, who is making activity an integral part of her daily life, and to her mom: Happy 100th Birthday, Emma!

Emma Playing the Harmonica


*The nine point summary comes from research conducted by Dan Buettner and published in the book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for living longer from the people who have lived the longest. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2008.