Sant Kaur Bajwa died last week aged 115. She was one of a group of elite survivors known as the supercentenarians – people over 110. What are the secrets of their longevity?
Anna Stoehr, who celebrated her 112th birthday in October, can remember the first world war and the sinking of the Titanic, although back then, she says, “the news didn’t travel the way it does now, so it didn’t seem so big”. By the time of the second world war, Stoehr was in her early 40s and raising her five children on a farm with her husband. Now, she says, she has “thousands” of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Although her mind is sharp, her hearing is impaired, especially on the phone from her home in Minnesota, and she speaks with the help of her 46-year-old granddaughter, Julie. What have been the biggest changes she has witnessed? “All the different types of machinery,” she says. Not aeroplanes or computers, but “I’m thinking about farming machinery. Going from horses to tractors, combines and those types of machines in place of what they used to use.”
Her husband, long-lived himself, died in 1998, and Stoehr, who had been living on the farm alone, only left it in May this year, moving to an apartment where she is still largely independent. She and her granddaughter have just returned from their weekly outing to the chapel, and are in the middle of a game of Scrabble when I call. Her grandmother, Julie says, is in remarkable shape and can still walk with the help of a stick or walker.
Stoehr has been asked by numerous gerontologists what she thinks her secret to longevity is, a question she finds a little irritating judging by one answer she gave: “Probably all those lard sandwiches I ate growing up.” Both her parents were long-lived for their time – her father died aged around 90, she thinks, and her mother was in her late 80s.
There are thought to be up to 400 supercentenarians – people who have made it to 110 and beyond – in the world, although there are only 59 currently verified by the Gerontology Research Group. Of these, there are only four verified by the GRG in the UK, although there are thought to be a handful more. But they are clearly a group of very special people.
“I’ll put it simply,” says S Jay Olshansky, professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois, who has spent many years researching longevity. “The only way you can make it out there is if you’ve won the genetic lottery at birth. It has to begin with genes, and only a very small number of people make it out there. They’re very unusual, they’re genetically different, and in all likelihood they age more slowly than the rest of us. And then of course there has to be a dose of luck – you can’t get hit by a bus. It’s a combination of genetics, luck and maybe some lifestyle choices, but when you get to those extreme old ages, I don’t think lifestyle has much of an impact.” He points to Jeanne Calment, the French woman who is still the longest-lived documented person, who smoked until she was 117 and died at 122. “It told you smoking was not a risk factor for her, when it is for most of the rest of us. So it is with almost all the supercentenarians – they’re clearly protected.”
The known upper limit is still Calment’s 122, although it’s not impossible that there have been humans who have lived, or are living, longer. “There is a possibility that there is somebody out there alive today over 122, but we’ll probably never know it, because in all likelihood they come from either China or India and they don’t have reliable birth records. Will the record be broken? Probably.” And we will also see more supercentenarians, he says – not particularly because of medical advancements or improved lifestyles, but because there are just more people in the world.
But what can life be like for them? Sant Kaur Bajwa, who died last week, was, according to her family (and passport), 115 when she died. Born in 1898, her life spanned three centuries. She was born in what is now Pakistan and was already nearly 50 at the time of partition, when she was forced to move to India, before moving to the UK in the 1960s and settling in Southall in west London. She outlived her husband and all of her four children. “Partition was very tough for her,” says Jim Rai, her 46-year-old grandson. “She’d also lost a baby. She made a living through sewing, trying to fend for her kids.”
Rai, his twin brother and siblings were raised by his grandmother after his mother – Bajwa’s daughter – died when he was small. She was already in her 70s then. “She has been a very strong matriarch of the family,” he says. “A massive personality. You wouldn’t want to cross her path if she was in a bad mood, but she had so much love – more than I would have thought possible for any one person.”
She was devoted to her son-in-law, and lived with him until her death. The family helped her move into a care home for a couple of weeks, “but it killed us, so we took her out. She was really big on bringing family together, and if there were any issues or upsets, she would ensure they got resolved. She didn’t want the family to break up in any way.”
Although Rai says his grandmother had never had any major illnesses in her life, “the last few years were tough. She was dependent on other people to help her, and she wouldn’t have been happy with that, and she couldn’t really talk for the last few years. For us [her death] is a big blow, but we’re celebrating her life. She was ready to go.”
Why does he think she lived for so long? He says he thinks her positive attitude had a lot to do with it – and the fact she was always “on the go. She was very particular about what went into her body. She would eat a lot of dried fruit. She was good at bringing people together. I think the reason she was still here was because of the strong bond that we had with her. She didn’t want to let go, and we didn’t want to let go of her.”
Ethel Lang, who lives in Barnsley, celebrated her 113th birthday in May, and is currently the 13th verified oldest in the world, and the second oldest person in the UK (after Grace Jones, who lives in south London, and is five months older – one of the few people left born in the 1800s). Her granddaughter-in-law, Denise, grew up knowing Lang, and married her grandson. “For that generation, living through the wars was just something they took in their stride. Some of the women who lived through it were a bit like the men – they never talked about the privations and hardships. She was just a very ordinary Barnsley girl who did ordinary things that Barnsley women did.”
She left school at 13 to go and work in a shirt factory. She was a very good seamstress, and had been since she was a child – her teachers would regularly pull her out of lessons, says Denise, to work on their mending. “She never smoked and rarely touched alcohol – she’s always liked a cup of tea. She was a good home cook, she made her own bread, she’s always eaten wholesome food. She’s never been overweight. She’s always been interested in people, outgoing and sociable. And she has always taken exercise. She loved dancing and was still dancing when she was 100 or more. I remember at one of her parties, we got her up dancing when she was about 107.” But genetics were also on her side. Lang’s mother died at 91, and when Denise did her family tree, she found very long-lived ancestors on Lang’s side going back to the 1700s.
Gwen Phillips is a new member of the supercentenarians club, after celebrating her 110th birthday last week. She has lived all her life in Newport, and only moved into her care home four years ago, after living independently. “She’s a tough cookie,” says Sheila Crook, who cares for her. “She’s very frail, but spiritually very strong. She’s a Catholic and very much into her faith.” Phillips didn’t have children, and has outlived her relatives, but she is still visited regularly by her local priest and members of her church.
She was born in 1903, and was one of the first women in Wales to get an English degree, after which she went on to work as a teacher. Crook says she looks forward to her annual telegram from the queen on her birthday. “She knows how old she is. She said to me: ‘You know I’m going to live until the year 2020.'” She laughs. “I think she probably will as well.”
Another new supercentenarian is Ralph Tarrant, who turned 110 earlier this month, and celebrated with a big family party. He is also one of the few male supercentenarians – of the GRG’s verified group, the first 25 are women, and only two men appear on the list (Tarrant is not yet on it). “I’ve been in a rough condition for three or four months,” he says on the phone from his home in Sheffield. He is hard of hearing, but his mind is intact. “Rheumatism and arthritis. But I think I’ve got over it now and I’m beginning to be able to walk again.”
Again, genetics plays a part in Tarrant’s longevity – his mother was 95 when she died, and his grandmother was 103. But he says he has never really given his age much thought. “It didn’t occur to me until I hit my 100th birthday. It’s just one of those things. Not everybody can do it. I’ve been healthy all my life.” Though when I ask what the biggest changes he has seen are, he says he remembers when he could buy a packet of cigarettes for sixpence (yes, he used to smoke). His diet wasn’t always great, says his daughter with a laugh: “He grew up on bacon fried in lard.”
His daughter, who lives in the US, comes to stay with him for several months every year, and many other family members help out, but Tarrant is largely independent. Although he is blind in one eye, he still reads a lot and his daughter says he writes wonderful letters. She says the family worried he wouldn’t survive after his wife, Phyllis, died last year at the age of 102 – they married in 1933, but had met the previous decade and had known each other for 90 years. “But I think he’s just determined to keep going.”