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Accepted at his last parish in a place called Granger, Texas a little before the age of 70, Reverend Thomas Pennington began making house calls to get to know his flock.At the first house he visited, a 106-year-old woman named Mrs. Labaj answered the door

Town with residents who reach the ages of 100 and beyond

Granger, Texas is well known for its many residents who reach the ages of 90, 95, 100, and beyond, but it's not the sort of place many would associate with longevity. In the middle of farming country, Granger residents are exposed to regular doses of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, in the air (from crop dusting), in the soil, and in the water. All the major crops are genetically modified.

A mostly Czech-American community, Granger probably has few or no vegetarians. Most people eat a pound (450 g) of meat, not per week or per day, but per meal. And most of the local food specialties are made with lard or butter or involve beef or pork.

People grow vegetables, but they don't eat too many of them except after frying or pickling. Buying most nutritional supplements requires waiting for the UPS truck or driving into Austin, more than an hour away.

So what is it about this little town that encourages longevity? It could be work. A Mrs. Pope who lived to be 104, never sick until she finally died of old age (which can occur before the ages 115 to 130 "experts" claim), retired from her job writing for the local newspaper at the age of 98. Mrs. Poppelz worked as a seamstress until age 85 and lived another ten years "wanting to cash my Social Security checks," she said.

One local resident farmed until age 98, famously eating six eggs and a pound of bacon every morning for breakfast, and another was featured on the Tonight Show as the "oldest driver in America," driving until age 105. Local residents, however, usually took for the side of the road when they saw him coming.

Social component as a key to longevity

And that could be the explanation for longevity. In this little place, everyone knew everyone else, what they usually did, where they would usually be, when they might be in need, and even 2010, most people still do. People cared for and continue to care for each other. They might "butt in", but even this was usually in a good way.

One resident cared for his mother until she reached the age of 104, and found himself at age 80 without retirement savings. When his home burned down and insurance didn't cover the expense of replacement, relatives and friends simply bought a better home and gave it to him.

The great-aunt of this author had a similar good experience. When she became unable to care for herself at the age of 95, she moved in with her daughter, who was happy to take care of her despite the fact she chain smoked. His other, 97-year-old great-aunt insisted on no smoking when the younger aunt visited. The 97-year-old aunt, however, chewed tobacco. "A nasty habit," she admitted, "but after 85 years it is hard to quit. That's why I have that rule for my little sister," who was 95 years old at the time.

Medical science has never identified genes that cause longevity

Nature vs. nurture. Medical science has never identified genes that cause longevity. There is a test that identifies genes that about 77 per cent of people who live to be 100 share, but that test does not explain the other 23 per cent of people living to become centenarians, and it does not guarantee that just because you have the genes, you'll live to extreme old age. After all, there are no genes that protect you from getting run over by a truck.

Some scientists speculate that extreme longevity may also be related to the way cells copy DNA as they divide. Dr. Leonard Hayflick once grew a culture of human cells in a beaker. He observed that the cells were able to reproduce themselves about 50 times, until eventually they didn't replace themselves any more. They just grew old and died. From this result some scientists speculate that there may be genes that allow cells to copy their own DNA more than 50 times and enable the person with that DNA to live longer. But it turns out that there is no single gene that enables this. In fact, scientists believe as many as 8,000 genes may determine lifespan.

People who live to be 100 grow old in families

Growing old in families. Professor Thomas Perls of Harvard University directs the New England Centenarian Study, a scientific investigation of life and lifestyle factors among New England residents who have lived to be 100 or more. One of the striking findings of the study, according to Dr. Perls, is how often people who live to be 100 mention they have a brother or sister or spouse who lives to be at least 90.

The most striking story of growing old families was uncovered when Dr. Perls and his associates noticed a photo in the Quincy, Massachusetts Patriot Ledger of a 108-year-old man blowing out the candles on his birthday cake, flanked by his 103-year-old sister. The researchers rushed to meet the pair, and learned they had a healthy, 97-year-old sister, too. And they were shocked to be told "It was a shame you weren't here last year, when our 101-year-old and 102-year-old sisters were still alive for the party."

No genetics, however, explain this and similar families. Maybe the secret is really having someone who cares about you as you grow old, enough to be a positive influence in your life, but independent of you so as not to be a burden.

So how can you be happy and healthy at age 102?

It is a reality that everyone eventually dies. In some cases, such as the 104-year-old mentioned above, organs just stop working for no apparent reason at all, and death ensues. There is no sickness. Organs just stop.

In other cases, such as the seamstress still working at 88 who lived another seven years, there can be one illness after another, but very deep "organ reserve." Some people spring back from devastating illness over and over again.

Most of us, of course, would prefer never to be sick. What science tells us is that close lasting relationships, either with children or with peers, contribute a great deal toward continuing life (with peer relationships more important to longevity in American culture).

There is also evidence that a "happy heart is a healthy heart," that optimists tend to have fewer deaths from heart attacks and to live longer in general. And in a study of people who were over 65 but not yet 90, scientists found that the ability to name a person who is a reliable source of personal support increased the probability of living another six years by an astonishing 1,095%.

If you want to live to be 90, 95, 100, or more, find good relationships. Take care of them. Be a good person and surround yourself with good people. There is nothing more important to your quality and length of life.

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