The new year is just around the corner, and 2024 will likely see a growing number of Americans enter a new club: the centenarian club. Researchers at Boston University are trying to figure out what it takes to become a member.
The New England Centenarian Study is the largest study of its kind. It's been enrolling people over 100, along with their family members, since 1995. The researchers have studied close to 4,000 participants overall, and there are currently about 1,500 enrollees who are alive and actively participating. Participants are asked to fill out comprehensive questionnaires about genealogy, medical history, lifestyle and health habits, along with regular cognitive assessments.
Musia Watkin of Brookline is a member of the centenarian club. She'll turn 101 on Jan. 1, 2024.
"I still don't know how I got here. It's so difficult to be able to assess how the years go, but they've gone and I can't believe it," she said.
Watkin, who is Jewish, grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, a country she describes as insular, oppressive and difficult. She moved to the US to be near her children, who attended college here. She now has 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Her energy and physical appearance belie her age. "I usually get complimented because they can't believe that I'm 100, that I don't look like 100. I'm also pretty mobile except for my walker," Watkin said
She currently lives at the Goddard House in Brookline, a senior living residence. She moved there from Newton with her husband, who died in 2013 after 72 years of marriage. Still, Watkin loves living at the Goddard. She loves to paint, and purples and blues are her favorite colors. "Living at the Goddard, it opened up my mind," she explained. "I've always been very curious and wanted to know why and how."
It is that curiosity that is among the focal points of the New England Centenarian Study. Genetics are also a factor.
Dr. Thomas Perls, director and founder of the New England Centenarian Study, says they have found that genetics play an increasingly important role in getting to these extreme ages.
"I think these human models of healthy longevity will help us find drugs, and the ability to screen for health-related genes in the general population, that will help delay age-related diseases like Alzheimer's," Perls said.
Joe Rapallo is another study participant. He turned 103 on Oct. 17 and currently lives at Brightview Senior Living in Wakefield. Joe's wife died in January 2021 at age 84.
His daughter, Karen Rapallo, a registered nurse, stops by to see her father regularly. She's also a member of the study.
"He calls me up at 6 o'clock in the morning on my days off and says, 'Where are we going? What are we doing?' He wants to go somewhere every day, usually out to eat at restaurants. The nicer the better," Karen said laughingly.
Joe grew up in Boston's North End and joined the Army at age 20 to fight in World War II. When he returned, he became a licensed electrician.
"I want to say he worked as an electrician until he was 90, until the state said he was too old to have an electrician's license any more, and he was really mad," Karen said, describing her dad as strong minded. She said Joe was also a bookie, and he added that he can remember 100 numbers at a time.
Joe attributes his longevity to his diet. "Pasta and salad, an Italian diet growing up and I didn't drink alcohol at all," he said.
Perls said it's hard to find a lonely centenarian. They tend to be conscientious and extroverted, with multiple generations around them and show little cognitive decline. But he says the study is not about finding the fountain of youth.
"It's the fountain of aging well, which includes taking good care of yourself, sleep, exercise and a healthy diet," Perls said. "Centenarians raise the bar for everyone. It enables more of us to embrace living to 100 instead of aspiring to live to 70. I think the vast majority of us should be able to get to 90."