So you want to be 100?

By Alex Kasriel, June 13, 2008
Being Jewish helps. So does being active and adapting to change. We ask the centenarians and scientists for expert advice

Hannah Cripps, Miriam Shenker, Rose Carr, Dolly Phillips and Eva Lewis have plenty in common. They all consider themselves to have a positive outlook on life; they are fiercely independent; none smokes or drinks… and all have reached 100 years of age or more.

The number of centenarians, increasing overall in Britain, is disproportionately high in the Jewish community. Go to any Jewish nursing home and there will be at least two or three residents whose mantelpiece proudly displays their framed certificate from the Queen. In fact, demographers estimate that the proportion of Jews in triple figures is three times that of the general population.

David Graham, demographer at the Board of Deputies and co-author of Jews in Britain: A Snapshot from the 2001 Census, says that Jews can expect to live longer than their gentile counterparts in the UK. Although there is no official life-expectancy data, he calculates from figures compiled by the Office for National Statistics that their average age is higher than that of the rest of the population, indicating a higher proportion of older members of the community.

“The median-age data shows that in England and Wales, on average, Jewish men are five years older than men generally,” he says. “On average, Jewish women are six years older than women generally.”

According to Graham’s figures, the average male age in Britain is 36; among Jewish men, it is 41. For women, the average age in the general population is 38; in the Jewish community, it is 44 years.

Tellingly, Graham also has statistics for people aged 90 or over which suggest that there are proportionately more in the Jewish community than in the general population.

“In the 2001 Census, there were nearly 4,000 Jews aged 90 and above in England and Wales,” he says. “Three out of every four of this group were women. They represented 0.8 per cent of the Jewish population. Although that doesn’t sound like much, it was over twice the proportion of people in that age group in the general population, which was 0.3 per cent.

“I would estimate that there are nearly three times as many Jewish centenarians as there are in the general population of England and Wales.”

So why do Jews enjoy such longevity? Graham believes it is to do with social factors. “Jewish longevity can be explained by the relatively high level of educational achievement among the population and the equally high numbers of Jews in white-collar jobs,” he says. “Good education and good jobs tend to correlate closely with longer life-spans.”

Women such as Miriam Shenker, Hannah Cripps and Rose Carr, who are all 100, did not come from prosperous backgrounds — but all were well-educated and enjoyed a “white-collar” lifestyle. Shenker’s husband was a furrier whom she helped with the business until she was in her seventies; Cripps’s husband worked as a manager for Moss Bros hire department; Carr’s husband worked as a teacher.

Today the three women keep active with hobbies such as knitting, baking, dancing, cards and painting. They say they enjoy feeling that they can still contribute to their community. Cripps, who helps assemble and staple the menus together at her care home, Rubens House in Finchley, North London, says: “First of all it passes the time. And it’s something I like to do. It’s a simple job, but it’s necessary.”

Shenker, who lives at Princess Alexandra Home in Stanmore, Middlesex, is keen on reading and says she wishes that she could still work. “My brain is very active,” she says. “I don’t always find someone to interest me here.” Carr enjoys playing kalooki and until very recently was still cooking, knitting and crocheting.

Studies suggest strong links between mental activity and the ability to stave off age-related diseases. According to Anthony L Komaroff, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, in a Harvard health publication called Living to 100: What’s the Secret?: “Stimulating mental activity may help prevent age-related thinking and memory problems by stimulating communication between brain cells.”

For Dolly Phillips, who is 105, and Eva Lewis, a mere 101, it was working well into their old age which has kept them active. Lewis, who now lives in Nightingale House in Clapham, South London, ran a fruit-and-vegetable wholesalers in Brighton well into her seventies. Meanwhile Phillips, who lives at Heathfields home in Manchester, worked in the Jewish Soup Kitchen in Manchester — where she first assisted when she was 17 — and introduced kosher meals-on-wheels in 1942. She continued to work on meals-on-wheels until well into her nineties and took care of its accounts until the age of 101.

Interviewed by the JC, these women share an enviably sunny disposition, as well as a desire to be independent and an ability to adapt to change. All have been widowed and outlived most of their friends. None wants to be a burden on their children, which is why they have all refused offers to move in with them.

“They wanted me to stay there,” says Shenker of her son, Norman, and his wife. “But when I heard things like: ‘We’re not going out tonight because we don’t feel like it’, I thought: ‘There’s a reason for that, they don’t want to leave me here. If this is going on, I’m not staying’.”

Carr says: “I wouldn’t like to live with the children, to be quite honest.”

In his 1999 book Living to 100, Boston geriatrics expert Thomas Perls concluded that centenarians seem to have personalities that shed stress easily. “An inability to control emotional stress has been linked to memory loss and heart disease,” Dr Perls writes.

Being Jewish normally means having strong family ties and celebrating festivals, simchahs and Shabbat. Carr, Shenker and Cripps all say they enjoy taking part in these events, and they clearly live to see their grandchildren grow up.

Leon Smith, manager of Nightingale House, is certain that such active lives must be a contributory factor. “We have celebrated many 100th birthdays at Nightingale, and I am convinced that one of the main reasons for this is the level of intellectual stimulation that the residents receive here,” he says.

Kirsten McLaughlin is research associate of the New England Centenarian Study, a US-wide survey of centenarians and their siblings. It has examined potential genes they may have in common and lifestyle factors that could influence the ability to achieve extreme old age. “A casual observation of the centenarians we interview is that they seem to be well connected with their families,” she says, “or living in a community where they stay active and interact with people.”

Professor Carol Brayne, an epidemiologist and public-health physician at Cambridge University, agrees: “There is quite a bit in the literature which suggests that folk with good social networks, strong engagement in social activities are more likely to age healthily. Some studies suggest spirituality and religion are also associated with healthy ageing.

“Generally, longer life expectancy once people in western societies have reached middle age is associated with absence of big risk factors — those associated particularly with lower vascular risk, not smoking, higher physical activity and good diet.”

Carr and Cripps have never had cause to be in hospital, and Shenker does not want to dwell on her pancreatitis or last year’s stroke. All do regular exercise, even if it is simply moving the arms and legs around a bit, and say they eat healthily and moderately.

But there is no doubt that an element of genetic luck is involved in living a long life. Carr’s mother lived until she was 96, and Shenker’s sisters, Minnie and Lily, are still alive at 94 and 88. The New England Centenarian Study found that its subjects were four times more likely to have a sibling who lives past the age of 90 than people with an average life span.

One big factor which can lead to dementia and other physical illnesses which cause an early death is drinking. The centenarians the JC spoke to said they drank very little or nothing at all.

Professor Brayne says: “Observational studies suggest that people with low to moderate alcohol intake are at lower risk of vascular disorders and dementia than those who don’t drink at all and those who drink larger amounts. But there could be other explanations.”

Or, as Rose Carr points out, “Advice [on how to live longer]? I can’t give other people advice. There’s always another side to it.”


Your checklist

Harvard research suggests that, as well as genetic factors, people who live longest tend to share many of these attributes:

-They don’t smoke or drink heavily
-Those who had smoked didn’t do so for long
-They gained little or no weight during adulthood
-They don’t overeat
-They eat fruit and vegetables
-They get regular physical activity
-They challenge their minds
-They have a positive outlook
-They are friendly and keep close ties with family and friends

Last updated: 4:53pm, March 2 2009