At 101 years old, Henrietta Daytz volunteers to help children read. In the summer she volunteers at Girls Inc. in Sarasota. In the fall when the children are back in school, she volunteers at Southside Elementary School in Sarasota. Here second-grader Isabella Moscone, 7, reads “Hercules and the Golden Apples” to Henrietta.

By Barbara Peters Smith
Published: Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 10:17 p.m.

NEW ORLEANS – If you live long enough to qualify as one of the “oldest old,” what are the chances that you will enjoy it?

The worldwide longevity boom has given rise to a bumper crop of centenarian studies, and most started out looking for the secret sauce that makes these rare individuals grow older than their peers while looking and feeling younger — “healthy aging versus just being alive, or not being alive,” as one geriatrician put it at the Gerontological Society of America’s annual meeting that ended here this week.

The goal, of course, is to identify those genetic and environmental factors that confer a long and healthful life, and find a biomedical or behavioral way to share the longevity dividend with a larger share of the population.

Some longevity traits are already well known: physical activity, productive lifestyles and a pattern of social engagement. But researchers are busy seeking clues about what it takes to maintain a pleasurable and fulfilling quality of life into the 90s and beyond.

As scientific disciplines go, this scrutiny of what is called “life satisfaction” among 100-year-olds is in its infancy, but some patterns are emerging and being confirmed in similar studies.

“A lot of the research is exploratory,” said Carolyn Aldwin of Oregon State University. “We don’t yet know what’s going on. We’re just starting to learn what makes centenarians unique.”

Studies of physical health in this exclusive club — there are only 53,364 known centenarians in the United States — have shown that these folks do age more slowly than other people, with much later development of the aches and pains that come with growing old.

But do they enjoy better cognitive and emotional health as a result? Not necessarily, according to social scientists who have been in the field, asking the very old to talk about their levels of well-being.

“Why is it that some centenarians consistently across cultures have high levels of resilience and others do not?” asked Peter Martin, an Iowa State University professor who co-directs the Georgia Centenarian Study. “We do know that personality is an important internal resource protecting both U.S. and Japanese centenarians.”

Of course, even the most rigorous measures of traits like resilience and contentment are subjective, and where some centenarian watchers see depression or dissatisfaction, others find the opposite.

“A positive outlook on life is very predominant in this group,” said Kathrin Boerner, a geriatrics professor at Mount Sinai Hospital who has been involved with the Heidelberg Centenarian Study. “There’s always frustration with illness and health-related issues, but in this group it doesn’t necessarily translate into feeling bad about life.”

Also, life satisfaction simply looks different from the long perspective of a centenarian.

“If you can get out of bed at 100,” said Bradley Wilcox, a geriatrician who directs the Hawaiian Lifespan Study, “you think you’re healthy.”

Here, then, are some insights from the early studies that could raise your chances of a more satisfied life on the other side of 100.

Be a guy: Reports are numerous of male centenarians consistently claiming higher levels of happiness than women. They account for only about 17 percent of the centenarian population, and tend to be in better physical health while the women test better for cognitive health.

“Why is it that the women are worse off in everything, but they live longer?” Aldwin asked. “Women always report that they’re sicker, but men die. For a male centenarian, I think there’s a lot of pride: ‘I made it and 99 percent of my cohort didn’t.’ ”

Make marriage central to your life: When U.S. and Japanese centenarians were asked about the life events most important to them, No. 1 for the Americans was marriage, while the Japanese most often cited historical events, like an earthquake or World War II.

But in both countries, placing the highest importance on marriage had a positive effect on mental health. Those individuals who held marriage in a positive light had lower levels of depression and neuroticism, and tended to be more extroverted, Martin said.

Eat your salmon and get out in the sun: Levels of Vitamin D are higher in centenarians, and correlate strongly to better cognitive health. Subjects 95 to 103 in the Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Longevity Genes Project showed the Vitamin D levels of 70-year-olds.

Individuals in the study with insufficient Vitamin D levels had two to three times the chance of developing cognitive impairment, said study author Sofiya Milman. Sunlight and diet are the best sources of the vitamin, she added, as it is not yet known how well supplements are processed by aging bodies.

Keep making new friends: In a fascinating study, 87 100-year-olds in the Heidelberg group were asked whether they longed for death or feared it.

“They are not freaked out by the prospect of death, and many of them say that they never expected to turn 100,” Boerner said. And they were all glad to be asked the question, she added: “When you are so close to death and nobody wants to talk about it, it is isolating. Family members don’t want to face it.”

In the study, 12 percent said they longed for death and 13 percent said they sometimes did. Only one of the respondents said she feared dying.

One of the centenarians who was ready to die directly spoke about quality of life: “Life is no longer beautiful. I’m too old. It’s enough already. I can’t do anything anymore. At 90, life was still good.”

But most interesting, Boerner said, were the four reasons people gave for wanting life to end. Only one — pain — had to do with health. The other three — loneliness, lack of a confidante, and a negative view of the future — stemmed from social isolation.

Those who contemplated death serenely without longing for it did talk about goals for the future, Boerner said.

“One man said that his goal was to be 104,” she said. “Most of them mentioned milestones they wanted to reach, like a wedding in the family.”