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Study looks at how more people are living to be 100

Margaret Wachs, 100, keeps busy by swimming at the YMCA pool in Milford. (WFSB photo) Margaret Wachs, 100, keeps busy by swimming at the YMCA pool in Milford. (WFSB photo)

More people have been living to the age of 100 than ever before.

A study based in New England has been examining how it's happening.

Margaret Wachs, 100, paddled her way across the YMCA pool in Milford.

"I have a hard time staying away from the sides," she said. "I can float."

Accompanied by her daughter, she swims laps every Tuesday. She said it's how she spent her last birthday.

"I tried to leave the word 'old' out of my vocabulary," Wachs said. "I don't like to say I am old."

Wachs was born in 1913. She said she grew up on a farm in Vermont, taught in a one-room school house, was married and had five daughters.

If she were to guess her own age though, she said he would not be 100.

"Well, it's 60," she said. "In my mind I am. You know, if I could only do things with my body and my eyes, I'd be out bowling."

Doctor Thomas Perls at the Boston Medical Center was trying to find out the secret to living that long. Perls was running the largest study of people who have lived to 100 in the world.

"Centenarians are one of the fastest growing groups in our population," said Perls.

He said it has not been just one factor making it happen.

"It's like winning the lottery," Perls said. "One or two numbers doesn't make a difference. Getting all seven, you win the big, the big prize."

He said exercise is important. That's why Wachs takes her swimming seriously.

However, Wachs said the mental aspect is just as important.

"I have people who do say 'Oh, I'm too old to do that anymore,'" she said. "And ‘You can't do that.' You've got to be interested in what's going on in the world."

"I think mental attitude plays a huge role in getting to older age for everyone," said Perls. "We've done some studies looking at personality."

Perls pointed to the first five major points in the British Spelling of Aging:

  • Attitude: Managing your stress well.
  • Genetics: A family tree gives big clues to your life expectancy. Wachs said her brother lived to be over 100 years old.
  • Exercise
  • Interest: Engaging your brain.
  • Nutrition: Growing up on a farm did Wachs well and getting rid of things like smoking, excessive alcohol and anti-aging scams.

Perls said 85 percent of those who live to be 100 were women.

In the 2010 census, 930 people in Connecticut made it to the milestone. Of them, 792 were women.

Perls found one indicator that a woman would live longer was if they had a child after the age of 40.

"It probably means their reproductive systems are aging very slowly and they don't have age-related diseases that impact upon fertility," said Perls. "And so it's just a marker."

Wachs was 39 when she had her youngest daughter.

She said she lost her husband a few years ago when she was 98.

She is blind and has some trouble getting around now, but she said she stays active at the YMCA and her church. She's already planning how to spend birthday number 101 in September.

"Well I hope I can swim," Wachs said. "I was hoping to do 10 more."

Perls put together a life-expectancy quiz. Anyone looking to see how they're doing on longevity can find out here.

It's 40 questions and takes about seven minutes, but Perls said it can give a person an idea of how behaviors can impact how long they live.

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