100 Candles on Her Next Cake, and Three R’s to Get Her There
By JANE E. BRODY
Published: October 18, 2010
Esther Tuttle is nearing the end of the 10th decade of a remarkably productive and adventurous life. If all continues to go as well as it has to date, next July 1 she will join the rapidly growing clan of centenarians, whose numbers in the United States have increased to 96,548 in 2009 from 38,300 in 1990, according to the Census Bureau.
At age 92, Mrs. Tuttle (best known as Faity, her childhood nickname) wrote a memoir with the prescient title “No Rocking Chair for Me” (iUniverse) displaying an acute memory of events, names, dates and places that she retains as she approaches 100.
At 30 years her junior, I couldn’t begin to recall the kinds of details that remain fresh in her still very active mind. I can only hope, should I live that long, to be as vibrant and physically fit as she is.
What, I asked, is the secret to her longevity? Is it genetics? Perhaps, but it’s hard to say. Her parents died at ages 42 and 50, leaving her an orphan at age 11, along with three siblings, one of whom did live to 96.
Genes do play a role in longevity. Dr. Nir Barzilai, a geneticist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, reports that centenarians are 20 times as likely as the average person to have a long-lived relative. But a Swedish study of identical twins separated at birth and reared apart concluded that only about 20 to 30 percent of longevity is genetically determined. Lifestyle seems to be the more dominant factor.
As Mrs. Tuttle said in clarion tones that belie her advanced age: “I am blessed and I’ve worked on it. You’ve got to work, be cheerful and look for something fun to do. It’s a whole attitude.
“If you respect what the doctors tell you to do, you can live a long life, but you have to do it. You can’t ignore the advice.”
Her memoir and replies to my queries revealed three critical attributes that might be dubbed longevity’s version of the three R’s: resolution, resourcefulness and resilience. Throughout her long life, she’s taken hardships in stride, traipsed blithely over obstacles and converted many into building blocks. And she has adhered to a regimen of a careful diet, hard work, regular exercise and a very long list of community service, all while raising three children.
Like many if not most other centenarians, according to the findings of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University, Mrs. Tuttle is an extrovert who has many friends, a healthy dose of self-esteem and strong ties to family and community. She continues to enjoy her youthful passions for the theater and opera.
A study of centenarians in Sardinia found that they tend to be physically active, have extensive social networks and maintain strong ties with family and friends. They are also less likely to be depressed than the average 60-year-old.
Do optimists live longer than pessimists? Yes, studies indicate. Dr. Hilary A. Tindle of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, found that among 97,000 women followed for eight years, those deemed optimistic were significantly less likely to die from heart disease and all causes than were pessimistic women, whom she described as “cynically hostile.”
The optimists were also less likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol, suggesting they take better care of their health. Indeed, the pessimists were more likely to be overweight, smoke cigarettes and avoid exercise, indicating, Dr. Tindle says, that negative thinkers make poorer lifestyle choices than positive thinkers.
A Walking Example
Faity Tuttle could serve as a model for that study’s findings. Each morning, she does an hour of yoga and other floor exercises, then dresses and goes out on the street or to the top of her Manhattan apartment building for a half-hour walk before breakfast. Her usual breakfast: orange juice, oatmeal, a banana and black coffee. Then she works at her desk, mostly corresponding with her 11 grandchildren, 21 great grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, now 3. “So many birthdays — one or two a month,” she said.
Lunch may be soup or leftover meat, a “very thin” slice of rye toast, with tea and Jell-O or fruit for dessert. The afternoon includes an hour’s nap and another walk, often combined with grocery shopping.
At 6:30 every evening, she enjoys a cocktail before a home-cooked dinner of perhaps lamb, pork chops, roast chicken or “a very good stew” she makes herself. Mrs. Tuttle, whose husband, Ben, died in 1988, lives with a dear friend, Allene Hatch, 84, an artist and author affectionately known as Squeaky, with whom she shares K.P. “Most days I do the cooking, and Squeaky cleans up afterward.”
Stay-at-home evenings are spent reading or watching “a good movie” on television, she said.
Mrs. Tuttle recently gave up a lifelong passion for horseback riding, but she still drives, though not on public roads, only on a 300-acre farm in upstate New York that the Tuttles had the wisdom to acquire when land was cheap. Her children built homes on the property and now live there in retirement, providing Mrs. Tuttle with nearby loving company all summer and during the spring and fall weekends she spends at the farm.
The Benefits of Coping
As good as her health is (no high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes), it is not perfect. She describes herself as “a bionic woman from the waist up,” with an artificial breast to replace the cancerous one removed 20 years ago, a heart pacemaker installed about a decade ago, a hearing aid and contact lenses.
Although she has spurned dairy foods for most of her life (she still follows the advice of a predecessor of Dr. Robert Atkins who told her to avoid dairy and follow a diet low incarbohydrates and rich in meats and fats), she was only recently found to haveosteoporosis, for which she now takes a monthly pill along with daily supplements ofcalcium and vitamins C and D.
Nor has she always enjoyed an affluent lifestyle. Though born into an accomplished, well-to-do family, her parents’ early death (the children were taken in by an aunt with limited means) and her decision to pursue an acting career led to a hardscrabble existence that persisted through the early years of her marriage and life on a farm with three small children and no electricity and makeshift indoor plumbing. According to one study, survivors of traumatic life events learn to cope better with stress and poverty and are more likely to live to 100.
In lieu of trauma, there are many measures one can take to facilitate a long, wholesome and productive life. Why live to 100 if those last years will be marred by physical and emotional misery?