Turning 100 is just a number for some centenarians. They exercise, travel, drive, work, dance and enjoy life as they have for decades.
As U.S. life expectancy declines, why do some Americans live so much longer and without the ravages of diseases like dementia?
Genetics account for 20% of the answer, but 80% comes down to lifestyle and luck, Andrew Steele, a British scientist and author of the book “Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old,” previously told TODAY.com.
The Blue Zones — places around the world where people live extraordinarily long lives — are the subject of a new Netflix documentary exploring how lifestyle can help humans live to 100 and beyond. It’s about more than just surviving: The goal is to have a healthy brain and body well into old age.
But you don’t have to travel far to meet extraordinary centenarians. TODAY.com talked with a number of Americans 100 years old or older to find out their longevity secrets.
Here are their simple tips for a long healthy life:
Move your body
Vivian Levy has been swimming for almost 100 years. At 104, she heads to a New York City gym every morning to swim laps in the pool for 45 minutes.
Swimming is among the best exercises for a long and healthy life, research has found. Regular exercise also may prevent brain shrinkage in older adults.
In addition to swimming since she was 6, Levy loved walking, bicycling and hiking when she was younger. She also played tennis and volleyball.
“(Exercise) makes me happy, and it’s good for my body. You meet people through exercise, too. Where I go swimming, I’ve made friends,” she says.
For Shirley Goodman, 100, it’s dancing that keeps her body healthy. Known as “The Dancing Nana” on Instagram, she lives independently in Sarasota, Florida, and still loves to tap dance and line dance at parties.
“I would advise people, if they like music at all, to keep it in their lives and don’t just sit home in a rocking chair,” she says.
Eat fresh, home-cooked food
At 114 years, Elizabeth Francis of Houston, Texas, is currently the second oldest person living in the U.S.
The supercentenarian always had a little garden in her backyard where she grew her own vegetables, including collard greens, mustard greens, carrots and okra. She’d bring the produce right into the house and cook it, her granddaughter Ethel Harrison recalls.
“She always cooked at home. … I just think she enjoyed cooking,” Harrison says. “I don’t ever remember her going to a fast food (restaurant).”
Home-cooked meals can keep the heart healthy, cardiologists say.
But make room for treats
Levy makes room for dessert. She likes blintzes, dark chocolate and coffee-flavored ice cream. She has a small portion of ice cream every night.
Goodman says she loves fried foods like shrimp — “anything that’s cooked in batter” — plus chocolate and any kind of sweets. She likes to have at least one piece of chocolate after each meal.
Mildred Kirschenbaum owned a travel agency for 35 years and still loves to explore the world. The Boca Raton, Florida, resident went on a transatlantic cruise to celebrate her 100th birthday in August 2023.
She’s shocked that some people stop trying new things when they turn 65 and retire. “They just make up their mind when they reach that age, ‘I won’t go anywhere or do anything,’” Kirschenbaum says.
At home, she lives on her own, still drives a car, works out in a gym and trades stocks and options on her computer.
Spend time doing what you love
Vincent Dransfield, 109, spent more than 80 years serving as a member of the local volunteer fire department.
When asked what brought him happiness and kept him going in life, he quickly answers: “The fire department. … I met so many friends.”
Dransfield, who lives in Little Falls, New Jersey, and still drives, also loved his professional career as an auto parts manager and only reluctantly retired in his late 70s.
Jayne Burns, 101, is still on the job decades after most people retire. She’s been cutting fabric at a Joann store in Mason, Ohio, for 25 years.
“I just like working and I like working with people,” she says.
Life comes with setbacks. Stay resilient
Dr. Gladys McGarey, 102, is a cancer survivor, endured the death of a daughter and went through a divorce when she was almost 70.
That breakup happened after her husband of 46 years left her to be with another woman — one of the hardest phases of her life, she says.
How can people get past such setbacks?
“You just don’t get stuck in them. It’s a matter of choice: What do I choose? I chose not to be stuck in the pain and suffering. It hurt and I didn’t like it,” McGarey says.
“There comes a point where it’s just not worth my energy to spend any more time on that.”
Kirschenbaum also advises people not to get angry at others in most situations. “It’s not worth it — they’re not worth it,” she notes. “If they’re worth my anger, then they’re worth my love. If it’s someone else, I don’t get angry. I just ignore them.”
Several centenarians TODAY.com interviewed were cancer or heart disease survivors, showing you don’t have to be in perfect health to achieve healthy longevity and it’s possible to put a health crisis behind you.
Most also said they’re optimists and expect good things to happen. Having a high level of optimism was associated with longer lifespan past age 90, studies have found.
Harrison recalled her 114-year-old grandmother would often say, “I just believe that everything’s going to get better.”