There are a handful of people left on Earth who have been alive in three separate centuries, says Rachel Nuwer. What can they – and those of a similarly extreme age – teach us?

Reaching a hundredth birthday is always cause for celebration, but these days there are so many centenarians around that scientists don’t even bother trying to keep track of them all. Indeed, in 2012 the United Nations estimated that there were about 316,600 people over 100 living around the world. By 2050, that number – unbelievably – is expected to rise to over three million.

A much more exclusive club, therefore, are the supercentenarians, or people who live to 110 or older. The Gerontology Research Group, a global team headquartered in Los Angeles, maintains the go-to database for keeping track of the oldest among us. Until this week, there were 53 supercentenarians. Sadly, the death of the oldest, Misao Okawa of Japan, was announced on 1 April. She was 117. 

Okawa was born in 1898, and there are now just four living people – three Americans and one Italian, all women – who were born before 1900. That is, they have lived to see three centuries. You might call these four people “tricenta-centenarians*” if giving their group a name (although language experts may have a better suggestion), and what makes them unique is that the world won’t see another set until 2100. This loss will likely happen in less than a decade, as supercentenarians tend to hold their venerated title only fleetingly.

Time’s unrelenting march means there’s a steady turnover of the world’s oldest, causing experts across many fields – biology, history, cultural anthropology – to scramble to learn what they can from these extraordinary people while they are still here. And it’s not only their health secrets that they stand to teach us.

The most obvious reason to study the oldest people alive today is for clues to healthy ageing. Supercentenarians often “seem to be born with slower clocks than the rest of us,” says Stuart Kim, a developmental biologist at Stanford University. When supercentenarians are 60, they appear to be 40; when they are 90, they seem about 70. “When you meet them,” Kim says, “they all look and act 20 years younger than they actually are.”

Take Besse Brown Cooper, born in 1896 in Tennessee, who lived to be 116 and 100 days – setting the record for the 10th-oldest known person ever to have lived. “A lot of people I talk to just howl in horror and say, ‘Oh gosh, I wouldn’t want to live that long!’” says Besse’s grandson, Paul Cooper, who runs a nonprofit named in his grandmother’s honour that provides support for supercentenarians. But despite the cringes that Besse’s age sometimes inspired, his grandmother, he says, never seemed old to him. She had no cause to visit a geriatric doctor; she lived at home and worked in her garden until age 105; and she was an avid reader until 113. “My grandma showed me that healthy ageing is absolutely phenomenal,” Cooper says. “It’s not something to fear.”

Researchers are attempting to reveal the genetic and environmental cornerstones that form the basis of Besse and others’ extreme, healthy longevity. So far, they know that heredity – whether a person has long-lived relatives – is one of the main predictors. “There’s no way to make it to 110 unless you win the genetic lottery at birth,” says Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois. But he and others have not been able to pin down the particular genes responsible for extreme longevity, partly because it’s difficult to get an adequate sample size for studying supercentenarians. But as more people reach the outer limits of a human lifespan, the studies will increase in robustness.

According to Thomas Perls, a professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston University and director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston Medical Center, such research “will yield clues not so much about how to get more people to extreme ages, but how to help them avoid or delay diseases like Alzheimer’s, strokes, heart disease and cancer.” In other words, there will likely never come a time when the majority will make it to 110, but insights gleaned from those who do might help the rest of us increase our odds of living full, healthy lives to 85 or 90.

Supercentenarians’ and centenarians’ value to society, however, does not end with the somewhat selfish pursuit of using them to figure out how to make our own old ages more enjoyable. Every elder contains a wealth of knowledge, leading some to refer to them as living historical treasures. Importantly, their personal accounts are not filtered through the lens of what a third party – a historian, a documentary filmmaker, a journalist – deems worthy of recording. Unedited, first-hand insight is something that has been largely absent from the official history record until relatively recently, says Doug Boyd, director of the Louie B Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries.

“It’s also about attaining a deeper meaning and understanding,” Boyd continues. As decades pass, people are better able to see the forest through the trees of everyday living, to organise their thoughts and to derive lessons and understanding from life’s ups and downs. Often, their stories also convey a complexity of feeling that is lost in second or third-hand accounts.

“We can be moved by a film, but not to the same degree as when we hear something directly from another person,” Cooper says. “The depth of emotion that is conveyed when someone tells you a story face-to-face is irreplaceable.”

That’s why Boyd is digitising his entire collection of oral histories, with 9,400-plus recordings into a searchable, freely available database. Instead of 500 people accessing the collection each year, now users top 8,000 per month. As those stories make their way into high school classrooms, podcasts and social media, they could start to shape the way we think about history – and the lifetime’s worth of knowledge and experience held within older people. “I really do think that a more informed, dynamic public memory is going to emerge as we start to see the walls of oral history archives coming down,” Boyd says. “The recorded human voice telling stories and grappling with life’s questions firsthand will take on an ever increasing cultural value.”  

Years of experience can also give older people a unique take on current events. “It’s really a very different perspective,” adds Perls, who recalls a conversation he had at the height of the economic recession, in 2008, with Walter Breuning, a Montana native who lived to be 114. “He told me, ‘You should try eating grass every day for a year like we did in Great Falls during the Depression, and then let’s see if you think you’re bad off now.’” Quite.

The wisdom of elders is, of course, something that cultures outside the West have long taken to heart. In Japan, 43% of seniors live with their children – a figure that has declined drastically over the past few decades, but still far exceeds that of Western cultures. Mayumi Hayashi, a research fellow at the Institute of Gerontology at King’s College London, grew up in a three-generational household. Her grandparents – with their love of harmony, hierarchy and the emperor, and their distaste for strong opinions and individualism – provided a window into Japan’s past. Their generation represented the last living vestiges of traditional Japanese society, which took a dramatic turn after World War II. “Their culture and their values were so different and, to me, seemed completely old-fashioned,” Hayashi says. “But having my grandparents around while I was growing up made me more aware of older people and also showed me how quickly Japan had bought into Americanised ideas.”

Or as Olshansky puts it: “Would we all benefit from spending more time with wiser, smarter, older people? Yes, absolutely.”

One major misconception about ageing that centenarians challenge is that growing old automatically entails physical and mental impairments. But Olshansky and his colleagues have found that the presumed link between declining health and age does not stand up to real-world data. “Most of what we think are age-associated problems are not due to ageing itself but to the things we do to ourselves, like smoking, drinking too much or being overweight,” Perls says. “Those are the things that lead to the disabilities that we see with ageing.” In reality, many people – even those who are 85 and older – have the same health and fitness profiles as those who are 20 to 30 years younger. Chronological age, a growing number of experts argue, is not a valid form of measuring health.

“I think most would agree that they’d much rather have a healthy 70-year-old who’s had 30 years of experience at the controls of a 747 than some new guy,” Perls says.

Holding a job at 70 or 80, however, is very different than doing so at 100. Yet there are striking examples of people who did successfully carry on working after they hit the century mark. Ephraim Engleman, 103, a rheumatologist, still sees patients at his University of California, San Francisco, office, where he also directs the Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis. He says he has no plans to retire. He’s not the first physician to demonstrate such strong work ethic. W G “Curly” Watson, a doctor from Augusta, Georgia, practiced medicine until he died at the age of 102, having delivered some 15,000 babies over his 50-year career. And Leila Denmark, who was the only woman in her medical school class of 1928, worked as a physician until the age of 103 and then enjoyed a 10-year retirement until her death at 113.

Our senior citizen future

Despite all that the elderly can contribute, old age is sometimes seen as something to be either ignored or feared. Ageism will probably never be defeated entirely, but the age at which societal discrimination begins may soon be pushed back, as already evidenced by phrases like “70 is the new 50.” As more and more people in their 80s and 90s lead rich, full lives, Perls says, that phrase will likely continue to be adjusted accordingly.

In Japan, that already seems to be happening. “Ninety isn’t old in the Japanese sense,” Hayashi says. “Around 100-plus? Then we celebrate.” This is likely because older people are omnipresent in that country, where one in four citizens are over the age of 65 – nearly 55,000 of which are centenarians. They are also an exceptionally active group. When Hayashi gets up at sunrise in Japan, she finds the streets crowded with older couples and singles out for their morning stroll. After their morning walk, many Japanese retirees then spend their day working as volunteers, where they regularly interact with younger people. Theirs is also the only country in the world that has a formal bank holiday dedicated to honouring all older people.

Japan can serve as a positive example of what is possible as other populations around the world mature. While the number of people who must move into nursing homes will rise dramatically, so, too, will the number of vibrant, fully engaged senior citizens who continue to live at home unaided and work or volunteer well into their 80s, 90s or even 100s. This will likely be especially true as the first wave of baby boomers begins to crash against the retirement wall. As Olshansky says: “We consider ourselves rebels, those of us from the 70s. I can assure you, we’re going to protest age discrimination.”

“We’ll change things,” he says, “and you younger people will benefit.”

Share this story on FacebookGoogle+ or Twitter.

*In an earlier version of this article, we used the word tri-centurians. On the advice of an expert, we now think tricenta-centenarians may be more accurate (if a bit of mouthful). This story has also been updated following the death of Misao Okawa aged 117, which was announced on 1 April.

Read more:

More than 300,000 people are now 100 or older

The girls who never grow older