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Summer 2016

Our Generation

Supercentenarian Study

by Connie McMullen

Will You Live to 110 and Beyond?

This July supercentenarian Ivan Bell Woodford turned 106, officially making him the oldest surviving WWII veteran living in the state of Nevada and perhaps the fourth or fifth oldest living veterans nationwide having fought with the Greatest Generation.

Woodford came to the attention of the New England Centenarian Study, being conducted by the University of Boston. When asked if he would like to participate, Woodford jumped at the idea and quickly began collecting recorded data of his family tree, medical records, and a host of tests to document his physical, cognitive and genetic makeup.

What is it that enables certain people to live to be a centenarian and beyond?

Ivan Bell Woodford, 106
Caregiver Barbara Bray, Ivan Bell Woodford, 106,
stepdaughter Myra Long, 74.

Born July 21, 1910, Woodford has seen more of history than an overwhelming majority of human beings male or female.

The genetic signatures of longevity study is being lead by the Boston University Medical Center. "I gave blood and was interviewed over the phone," Woodford said. Researchers gathered eight pages of his family history to compare with others who are 100 years and older. "Ivan was so excited he was selected as a study participant he practiced signing his name to place his signature on all of the documents," said caregiver Barbara Bray. It seems that the study researchers found out about Woodford following the Veterans Day Parade where it was publicized that he served as Grand Marshal in 2015.

Another rather unique fact about Woodford is his family tree. Woodford can literally trace his ancestors back to the 17th century. "They know how long they lived and when they died," he said.

The New England Centenarian Study is the "largest and most comprehensive study of centenarians and their families in the world." Two studies have been conducted with one still underway. The New England Centenarian Study, founded in 1995, was the first comprehensive review of super aging adults, and the multicenter Long Life Family Study, which is underway at five study sites, was established in 2006. According to the Boston University School of Medicine, researchers are seeking participants who are age 103 and older, or 100 years plus with siblings.

Since 2006, the Long Life Family Study has documented 5,000 subjects belonging to about 550 families that "demonstrate particularly unusual clustering for exceptional longevity." There are currently 1,600 centenarians, 500 children (in their 70s and 80s) and 300 younger controls. Of this group, the largest sample in the world, there are 107 supercentenarians (age 110 plus years), the oldest of the old subjects in the study.


A Model of Aging Well. Centenarians (age 100+ years) markedly delay disability towards the end of their very long lives, at an average age of 93 years (that's 33 years beyond the age of 60!). (Hitt R, YoungXu Y, Perls T. Centenarians: The older you get, the healthier you've been. Lancet, 1999;354 (9179):652.)

According to study statistics, this group of individuals is a prime example of aging well. Of those studied 15 percent have no clinically demonstrable disease at age 100 years. Study researchers call them "escapers". "About 43 percent are "delayers", subjects who did not exhibit an age related disease until age 80 years or later. There are about 42 percent of subjects who are "survivors", those with clinically demonstrable disease(s) prior to the age of 80 years."

"Supporting the compression of morbidity hypothesis, that as one approaches the limits of lifespan, diseases (morbidity) must be delayed (or escaped) towards the end of these longest lived." Researchers have observed amongst supercentenarians (age 110+ years), that health span equals lifespan. Researchers believe that instead of the aging myth "the older you get the sicker you get", it is much more the case of "the older you get, the healthier you've been". (Evert J, Lawler E, Bogan H, Perls T. Morbidity Profiles of Centenarians: Survivors, Delayers and Escapers. J Gerontol Med Sci 2003; 58A:232237.)

Predictors of Reaching 100: Researchers note that living to 100 is a terrific advantage, not just in years of survival but in more years with a sustained quality of life. "Long living centenarians vary widely in years of education (no years to postgraduate), socioeconomic status (very poor to very rich), religion, ethnicity and patterns of diet (strictly vegetarian to extremely rich in saturated fats)." However, the centenarians that were studied do have a number of characteristics in common:

  1. Few centenarians are obese. In the case of men, they are nearly always lean.
  2. Substantial smoking history is rare.
  3. A preliminary study suggests that centenarians are better able to handle stress than the majority of people.
  4. Some centenarians (15%) had no significant changes in their thinking (demented). Researchers also discovered that Alzheimer's disease was not inevitable. Some centenarians had very healthy appearing brains with neuropathological study (Researchers call these gold standards of diseasefree aging).
  5. Many centenarian women have a history of bearing children after the age of 35 years and even 40 years. From the studies, a woman who naturally has a child after the age of 40 has a 4 times greater chance of living to 100 compared to women who do not. It is probably not the act of bearing a child in one's forties that promotes long life, but rather, doing so may be an indicator that the woman's reproductive system is aging slowly and that the rest of her body is as well. Such slow aging and the avoidance or delay of diseases that adversely impact reproduction would bode well for the woman's subsequent ability to achieve very old age.
  6. At least 50 percent of centenarians have firstdegree relatives and/or grandparents who also achieve very old age, and many have exceptionally old siblings. Male siblings of centenarians have an 17 times greater chance than other men born around the same time of reaching age 100 years, and female siblings have an 8½ greater chance than other females also born around the same time of achieving age 100.
  7. Many of the children of centenarians (age range of 65 to 82 years) appear to be following in their parents' footsteps with marked delays in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and overall mortality.
  8. Some families demonstrate incredible clustering for exceptional longevity that cannot be due to chance and must be due to familial factors that members of these families have in common.
  9. Based upon standardized personality testing, the offspring of centenarians, compared to population norms, score low in neuroticism and high in extraversion. Genetic variation plays a very strong role in exceptional longevity.

Nature Versus Nurture: The Role of Genes Versus Environment in Aging and Exceptional Longevity. "Gerontologists often cite studies of lifespans amongst identical twins reared apart to describe the genetic and environmental components of aging. Based upon these studies, the common answer is 7080 percent environment and 3020 percent genes. However, researchers learned from studies of the siblings of centenarians and of supercentenarians that exceptional longevity (EL) runs very strongly in families. A Danish study of nonagenarians and centenarians strongly suggest that "the genetic component of exceptional longevity gets larger and larger with increasing age and is especially high for those age 106 years and older."

Neuropsychological and Neuropathological Studies: Of particular interest among researchers is the question: how centenarians are able to markedly delay or in some cases escape Alzheimer's disease? The question is being played out as researchers are performing detailed and annual neuropsychological examinations on centenarians living within 34 hours of Boston. A number of these subjects have indicated their willingness to donate their brains for neuropathological studies once they pass away.

Details for the two studies on supercentenarians can be found at:

The New England Centenarian Study

Boston Medical Center
88 East Newton Street, B2400
Boston, MA 02118
Local Phone: (617) 638-6679 or (617) 638-6688
Toll Free: 1-888-333-6327

Census Data

The U.S. Census listed 1,400 supercentenarians in 2000 (about 1 per 200,000) but an email based effort facilitated by the Gerontology Research Group ( that monitors and validates claims of age 110 and older estimates the number of living supercentenarians in the U.S. to be approximately 60 to 70 (or approximately 1 supercentenarian per 6 million people) and 250 to 300 worldwide. One study reported Medicare data indicting that, in 2000, there were 32,920 centenarians and that, of these, 105 (0.3%) were age 110 and older. One study estimated that seven in 1,000 people born at the turn of the last century lived to become centenarians and one in 100,000 lived to be 110 or older.