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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Hitting the Big Eleven-O

Turning 100 is getting old. Experts now focus on super-centenarians of 110 or more, like Marion Higgins of Seal Beach, soon to be 112.

June 25, 2005|Andrew H. Malcolm | Times Staff Writer

Marion Higgins is very good at remembering. She remembers writing her first book 10 years ago. She remembers moving into Seal Beach's Leisure World in 1989. She remembers the history of furniture acquired at long-ago garage sales and celebrating the end of the World War -- both II and I. She remembers hearing the Titanic had just sunk, and the long railroad ride to her family's homestead in a new state called Idaho. And she remembers hating sunbonnets.

That would have been in the '90s -- the 1890s.

Mrs. Higgins turns 112 on Sunday. She is the oldest living Californian and is believed to be the 21st oldest living human. She belongs to an exclusive but growing population of super-old folks whose longevity is so much more than a family bragging rite.

Her life has spanned the terms of 20 of the 43 presidents in U.S. history. Her frail body, sharp-as-a-tack mind and amazing longevity are being closely studied by a little-known Los Angeles research center to discover secrets to living long and well.

According to the Gerontology Research Group at UCLA, the average life expectancy for Americans born today is 77.6 years (80.1 for women and 74.8 for men). The 2000 census found some 50,000 Americans who claimed to have reached 100.

The research group, accepted as a global authority on the super-elderly by Guinness World Records, among others, doesn't care about those who've merely crossed the 100-year mark. These scientists become interested after someone reaches 110 -- a super-centenarian -- which only about 500 Americans of those 50,000 will.

Then, the group's network of clever gerontology detectives like Robert Young seeks proof and insights.

"The entire globe has been explored and mapped," Young says. "Now, we can start discovering the geography of the human life span."

Young and others mine troves of data to verify the truly old, research their lives and uncover senior frauds. Earlier in life, it seems, adults tend to fib about their age on the low side; the age 39 keeps coming to mind. But somewhere in their late-80s/early-90s, people start padding ages on the high side, encouraged by proud family members and even the odd tourism agency.

In the eyes of these researchers, Marion Higgins is among the verified elite. She's a living textbook on aging whose lifestyle, habits, health, mental acuity and genes -- along with, ultimately, her autopsied body -- may offer valuable clues in the age-old search for the secrets of longevity.

"We know so much more than before," says Dr. L. Stephen Coles, a physician and co-founder of the Gerontology Research Group. "We see some patterns. For instance, your parents' genes are primary. You don't ever want to be fat. And optimists seem to fare particularly well. But we're still only beginning to decipher the biological hieroglyphics of the human genome and how the human body ages."

To Mrs. Higgins, who's had 40,907 days to figure it out since June 26, 1893, that's so much high-falutin' folderol.

"I face every day one at a time and I'm always learning something new," she says. "I'm just a slow learner."

Also, she doesn't eat raspberries. Not even for birthday celebrations. Mrs. Higgins' second son, Horace, will preside over the family festivities. He's 82, played tennis three times a week until last winter and may be the only Caltech graduate to attend a 60th class reunion -- and bring his mother.

Super-centenarians remain rare, but their numbers are growing. In 1999, the gerontology group, a loose band of doctors, demographers and part-time researchers, counted 45 people verified as 110 or older. Today, its website (www.grg.org) lists 66. Over the years, it's documented 835 super-centenarians, including 16 who reached 115.

Young, the group's senior investigator, says few people have the ambition to reach 110. But, he notes, "At 109, given the alternative, 110 can seem acceptable."

He estimates the world's population of super-centenarians at 250 and growing, in part because doctors, medicines and nutrition have prolonged what experts call the human health span -- the period between birth and the cascade of medical problems that mark the end of life.

Verification by the research group is a rigorous, peer-reviewed procedure involving original documents such as birth and marriage certificates. Modern reissues of documents or family Bible notations are insufficient.

Young and group colleagues such as Louis Epstein often pore over old census data and military draft records. Many of the 1890 census records were destroyed by fire, but the 1900 census is a treasure chest, listing birth month and year for each resident at most U.S. addresses.

Epstein, the 44-year-old owner of an Internet service provider in Putnam County, N.Y., and Young, a 31-year-old graduate student in Atlanta, share an academic delight in digging up accurate documents, uncovering frauds and challenging each other.

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