Secrets of Supercentenarians
Great advice for living longer from a small club of those 110 years or older
As I made my way along an old cracked sidewalk on Meader Street in Campbellsville, I didn’t know what to expect. Here on this street in a small white house resides the oldest living Kentuckian, Mrs. Lera Williams. How will someone 111 years old react to my questions? Is her mind still sharp? Upon knocking on the door, an elderly gentleman (one of Lera Williams’ children) invited me in. There they were, Lera and her six surviving children, including 91-year-old daughter, Eunice, who looks more like 61.
“Hello, everybody, and it’s an honor to meet you, Ms. Lera.” She looks up at me from her favorite chair and says, “Nice to meet you, too, and I’m doing fine and dandy. I hope you are too.” Her mind is still sharp all right. In fact, it’s hard to match her wit. “I think we look real cute together,” she says with an ageless bright smile. The whole room broke out in laughter and I am warned that “Momma is quite the flirt.”
The granddaughter of a Union soldier, Lera Williams was born February 9, 1900, just as we crossed into the 20th century. For the first 18 years of her life she rode sidesaddle on horses, and can clearly remember that first uncomfortable feeling of riding in a “horseless buggy” on her way into town to purchase wedding attire.
In 1918, Lera married lifelong farmer C.M. Williams, who died of cancer in 1961. She has been a widow longer than she was married. Her father, Alexander Morrison, was born in 1856 and recalled throughout his life watching, as a 5-year-old, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and his Raiders storm through southern Kentucky. This man’s daughter still lives today. Try to wrap your mind around that.
Lera is known as a “supercentenarian,” people 110 and older. At the time of writing this article (in February), there were only about 16 other living Americans older than her—many of them by only days or weeks—and only 21 in the U.S. as validated by the Gerontology Research Group (www.grg.org). Once she passes 111, 112, and so on, she’ll become somewhat of a national celebrity. Writers at the Guinness Book of World Records are already waiting to interview her.
The world’s oldest living man, 114-year-old Walter Breuning, a retired railroad worker from Great Falls, Montana, has been interviewed for all sorts of national publications, television, and radio shows.
Lera seems excited about that possibility. As I interviewed her for both KET and Kentucky Living, I ask, “How do you feel about becoming such a big star?” “I’m thrilled to death! Why, I never thought it could happen to little old me,” she says with a big smile. “That’s right, little old me a star!” she repeats. Again the whole room breaks out in laughter.
Although we couldn’t turn up a male supercentenarian in Kentucky, we know he probably exists, and if so we’d certainly like to hear about it. Surprisingly, there’s no good database for tracking this kind of information.
We men don’t often make it to 110. Below Walter Breuning, it’s a long way down a list of women before the next male centenarian. But 103 is nothing to sneeze at. That’s the age of Dr. L.F. Beasley of Franklin. Throughout his career, from 1934 until 1975, Dr. Beasley made house calls. Simpson County Clerk Chip Phillips says, “It seems like he delivered half the population of Simpson County.”
When asked about his longevity, Doc Beasley says, “I’ve been asked over and over, but I really don’t know why I have lived so long.” One thing is for sure: genetics are in his favor. Several members of his family lived to be in their 90s and some are 100 or more.
Another Kentucky native, Emelie Weil, originally from Crescent Springs but now living in Milan, Indiana, is even older than Lera Williams. Emelie turned 111 on November 20, 2010. Born in 1899, she has seen three centuries. The former registered nurse and accomplished pianist says her longevity is a result of her strong Catholic faith and “praying.” She adds “eating not too much” has also been an important factor. “Now I just try to keep on breathing,” she says. Emelie also lost her husband early in life. She raised seven children on her own.
Back in Campbellsville, I wanted to know Lera’s secret to longevity. She told me her big secret is not to worry. “Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry. God is watching out for you,” she pointed out. Then she sang me a few verses of an old song that had the same lines.
Deborah Danner, Ph.D., director of education for the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky (www.mc.uky.edu/coa), says that kind of attitude is common among centenarians. “They all seem to have this innate ability to let things roll off of them, no matter how many bad things have happened. To them it’s all good,” she says.
Dr. Danner participated in the famous Nun Study (www.healthstudies.umn.edu/nunstudy) on aging and Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases, following more than 600 Roman Catholic School Sisters of Notre Dame in Minnesota. The ongoing study, which began in 1986, also looks at longevity and quality of life, giving clues as to why so many of them live to a ripe old age. They looked at writings of the nuns as far back as their mid-teenage years. Dr. Danner says the findings were astonishing. The nuns who wrote about their lives in a positive way—the glass is half-full—lived an average of nine years longer than the other nuns. Dr. Danner says less stress puts less stress on the vital organs.
But Lera’s life has not been without tragedy. On an unusually warm day in January 1929, the skies grew ominous in Taylor County and a powerful tornado demolished the Williamses’ farmhouse. Their 6-month-old daughter, Nellie Katherine, was killed. Later she lost another child, Audrey, to an illness. “How did you cope with that?” I ask. With an answer that goes right along with Dr. Danner’s studies, Lera says, “You just gotta go on and do the best you can. That’s all you can do.”
But a positive outlook on life is not the only ingredient in a rare combination of mental and physical traits, according to the Sanders-Brown Center’s director, Dr. Linda Van Eldik. “They have a rare combination of genetics (someone else in the family lived a long time), positive attitudes, healthier lifestyles (reasonably good eating habits), and just plain luck…no lethal accidents or cancers, etc.”
Lera’s children brought out a feast of country cooking like it was Thanksgiving Day. The table was adorned with pork loin, green beans and corn canned from the garden, homemade biscuits, and some of the best pecan pie I’ve ever eaten. When Lera finished her dinner, which is still the noontime meal in rural Kentucky, I asked her about her diet. She says she has always eaten a lot of vegetables and fruit, chicken, fish…and eggs, her favorite. “And right now I’d love to have some dry-roasted peanuts,” she added.
Lera Williams is a classic example of how to live to 100 or more. You have to laugh a lot, sing a lot as Lera did for me, don’t worry too much because “it won’t do you any good,” eat fairly well (lots of fruits and vegetables), and stay reasonably thin as Lera has. And it’s good to have someone in the immediate family who lived unusually long too: Lera’s half-brother, John Morrison, lived to be 104 years and 6 months.
In my own unscientific studies on centenarians (a lot of television interviews), I’ve found that these folks always look forward to tomorrow. They don’t dwell on the past and especially not the bad parts of their past. Life goes on. Centenarians will tell you to “get over it.” But that’s hard for many of us. I don’t think I would ever get over losing a child in a tornado. Perhaps they don’t either. But they definitely have the remarkable ability to at least put it aside.
At the end of my wonderful day with Lera Williams, she reminded me of “how cute we look together.” On that note, I left her little house on Meader Street with a whole new approach to life. I had met one of the most incredible people of my life. And I vowed to at least try to learn from her. I will try not to stress out so much and I won’t “sweat the small stuff.” It’s just not worth it. I will look forward to the rising sun of a new day no matter how many bad things happen to me today. Heck, I might even start singing more often, at least in the shower. Thank you for inspiring me, Ms. Lera. And I’ll see you at your next birthday party.
KNOW A SUPERCENTENARIAN?
Do you have a family member who is 110 or older living in Kentucky? If so, we’d love to hear about them. In 200 or fewer words, include their birth date, information about their background and family, their hometown, and where they are currently living, along with your relation, your address, your phone number, and if applicable, which electric co-op you or they belong to.
E-mail to: email@example.com with subject line “110 or Older.” Or mail to: Older Kentuckians, Kentucky Living, P.O. Box 32170, Louisville, KY 40232. You can also e-mail or mail a current photo or an older family photo. E-mailed photos should be 250 KB or higher to print. Be sure to identify family members from left to right in the photo, and include the photographer’s name. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you would like the photo returned.
Let us hear from you by May 30, 2011. We’ll print as many as we have room for or include them on a special online Web page, depending upon how many we receive.