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Will you score a century?

Blog | By Nigel Summerley | Jan 22, 2018


If you are an oldie, you may be well on your way to being a centenarian – especially if you are a woman. Men have a much tougher time making it to 100, but if they’re happily married, they seem to stand a better chance than other males of making it to this remarkable age.

The general dos and don’ts are: don’t smoke, don’t become obese, don’t be grumpy; and do eat a moderate diet, do be open to new interests later in life, do be positive and do do lots of walking.

These and many other factors – and, interestingly, some complete exceptions to these rules – are examined in Secrets of the Centenarians, a new book by John Withington. One story is that of a lady from Croydon who lived to be 102, having smoked an estimated 170,000 cigarettes in her lifetime. She ‘only gave up when she could not see clearly enough to light up’, says Withington.

A settled life – whether you are male or female – seems to predispose you to longevity. But again, there appear to be exceptions. Oldie of the Year in 2016 Olivia De Havilland, now 101, went from falling in love with Errol Flynn to relationships with Howard Hughes, James Stewart and John Huston, before marrying – and divorcing – twice. She also had a bitter falling out with her sister, Joan Fontaine, that went on for years.

Controversial film-maker Leni Riefenstahl never shook off her connections with Hitler and the Nazis, was arrested in 1945, imprisoned and interrogated, and then found it impossible to re-start her career despite countless attempts. After a car accident that left her with a collapsed lung and serious head injuries, she recovered and took up photography and (at 71) scuba diving. She was also seriously injured in a helicopter crash but survived. Hers was certainly not a settled or stress-free life – but she lived to be 101.

Centenarians, like everyone else, are all different. In the end, there really is no way of telling whether we will be around when we are 100. But Withington’s investigation throws up real food for thought on a subject that must be of interest to us all.

'Secrets of the Centenarians' by John Withington (Reaktion £20)

NIGEL SUMMERLEY