You don't have to live in a remote Andes Mountain village or the rugged Soviet Republic of Georgia to live a hundred years: In the Washington metropolitan area there are an estimated 130 centenarians, one of the highest concentrations in the United States.
Social Security Administration statistics report 60 centenarians are probably the fastest growing segment of the American population, according to U.S. Administration on Aging officials. Between 1974 and 1978, their numbers nationwide jumped from 8,317 to 11,992, reported the U.S. Census Bureau and Social Security Administration.
This is what experts on aging say about the chances of living to be 100 years old:
While the odds have improved greatly, only one person in every 20,000 will live to blow out 100 birthday candles. But the odds for reaching 95 are much better: One in 2,500 will live that long.
There's no substitute for good genes, according to area experts on aging, but you can maximize your chances of reaching 100 by staying slim, working as long as you can, minimizing stress, getting regular medical care, exercising a lot and leading a stable family life.
Of eight centenarians The Washington Post was able to contact, those interviewed placed an active religious life high on their list of hints for longevity.
"I couldn't have done it by myself," 106-year-old Annie Rabb said in an interview at her Northwest Washington home. "It was the Lord who made it so."
Women have a better chance of living to 100. Social Security statistics showed that seven out of 10 centenarians are women.
The Northeast and North Central states have the highest percentage of centenarians. Philip R. Lerner, a Social Security statistician, said he believes those state may be favored because of "climatic changes. It's a more invigorating environment."
Despite its popularity as a retirement state, Florida is among the states with the lowest percentage of persons over 100. Lerner said that is because Florida did not become a retirement community until 15 years ago, and elderly people in the state are still only in their 70s and 80s. Twenty years from now, Lerner said, that population will have "matured," thus increasing the number of centenarians.
Despite Florida resident Charlie Smith's claim that he was born in 1842-making him 137-area experts on aging said in recent interviews that the human body is built to live at most 120 years.
Jacob S. Siegiel, demographic statistician for the Census Bureau, said Smith's claim is not given much credence because of lack of supporting documentation, like a birth certificate. Siegiel said he believes there are serveral similar instances of "age mis-statements" in past Census Bureau headcounts of the centenarian population.
Dr. Valery Portnoy, associate professor of medicine at George Washington University, said the likelihood of someone living more than one or two decades past 100 is very small. "If I put someone in a room without disease, we would see them live about 120 years. But people are contaminated by disease, so life span is shortened."
Portnoy, who is one of a handful of people in the study of old age, said that in the next 20 years "we should expect an increasing amount of 100 year olds" because of greater knowledge of the aging process, more advanced methods of treating chronic disease, improved living conditions and greater awareness of healthy lifestyles.
Portnoy's prediction is in line with recent Census Bureau studies on the future composition of the population. According to bureau statistics, the elderly population is this country has been steadily growing-from 4 percent of the total population in 1900 to 11 percent now. Since 1900, 26 years have been added to the average life span, Siegel said.
By they year 2020, the percentage of the population over 65 will reach 15.5 percent and senior citizens will outnumber persons aged 45 to 49, two to one, Siegel said.
Zachariah D. Blackistone, perhaps Washington's most famous centenarian at 108, fits all the general longevity rules. Most of his eight brothers and sisters lived to be at least 70; one of his cousins, L. Perry West, is 100 and is active in Washington.
Not only did Blackistone play golf and jog with religious devotion until he was over 100, he still pays occasional visits to Blaskistone Florists, the firm he founded nearly 85 years ago.
Blackistone attributes his longevity to a hearty diet, a long working life and the good graces of God. West, who retired from his successfull brick-making company less than eight years ago, said his family has been blessed with long generational spans.
For instance, his grandfather was born during George Washington's presidency in the 1790s, which represents a 80-year gap between West's birth and his grandfather's. Statistically, the gap should have been about 40 years, since a generation is calculates at 17 to 20 years.
Another centenarian, Keturah Baldwin of Silver Spring, gave up editing a monthly newsletter for her Springvale Terrace complex only last month, on the day she turned 100. It was one of many careers, including author and teacher, she had over the last century.
Her younger friends at Springvale Terrace, like Agnes Gaumnitz, who keeps her age a secret, feel Baldwin's life-long productivity has "given her a lot more wit, charm and intelligence at 100 than most people start with."
Baldwin, who is the youngest of 11 children, told her March 4 birthday guests, who included 37 relatives, spanning five generations, that "work, play, love, worship and family and friends are what sustain you."
Among centenarians there are many, however, who have not been as lucky as Blackistone, West or Baldwin in handling their longevity gracefully.
Ann Dieffenbach, acting information officer for the National Institutes of Health's Institute on Aging, said persons who comfortably live to extreme old age are rare. One of the problems has been a "serious lack of knowledge about how to handle old-people diseases," she said.
This situation is changing, she noted, but slowly. "Until recently no medical schools had geriatrics programs."
Barbara Cahn, who coordinates all geriatrics programs for the University of Maryland, said the problems confronting persons who live to 100 are often more severe versions of those confronted by the elderly in general.
"If these people are over 100 years old, they're probably very heavily pressed economically," Cahn said. "They were over 60 when the idea of pension plans came into being so they never had a chance to become part of one."
If they are not receiving support from family members, Cahn said, centenarians often have to rely solely on the federal welfare program for the elderly, which pays about $187 a month for a single person. "For the most part," she said, "these people are below poverty level."
Cahn also said extreme loneliness plagues persons living to advanced old age. "They have no social supports, no spouse or siblings or friends and they've probably lost their children."
Impaired mobility, a problem for many senior citizens, Cahn said, often adds to centenarians' isolation.
Statistically, centenarians have an increased chance of "multiple chronic illness," according to Cahn. "It may not be critical, but it plagues them all the time."
The illnesses generally involve seeing and hearing, two functions taken for granted for 90 years of a centenarian's life, Cahn said. Or the illness can be more debilitating, like incontinence or digestive trouble. In any case, Cahn said, life becomes more trying with no prospects for change.
This dead-end feeling can be the most serious illness of all, she said, leading to a depressed state that could ultimately be fatal.
"For the most part, these people have to be 'cope-ers' just to have made it that far. But if a depression sets in," Cahn warned, "they become less effective as human beings, and a downward, often quickly downward, cycle can begin."
The most common illness connected in the public mind with advanced old age is "senility," and Portnoy, like many other gerontologists, visibly bristles at the use of the word.
"Someone who forgets in middle age is called absent-minded; someone who forgets in old age is senile. It's absurd," Portnoy said, adding that for a person age 100 "it is normal to have a slow memory, slow actions, but this does not necessarily mean a decrease in intelligence that senility implies."
"It's a disease that often affects older people," Portnoy said, "but there's no evidence that it is a necessary part of aging.
"There's no doubt we're losing brain cells, some five billion each decade after 40. But each person has 100 billion and there's no question that it is enough capacity to pick up the slack. We're losing cells in the heart, in the kidney, too, but we don't even notice it."
"The question becomes," he adds, "how do we stimulate those remaining cells to become resistant to disease, stress, emotional grief? With less cells at work there is less resistance." As a result, any sort of stress can be potentially fatal.
The point, according to Portnoy, is to have a less stressful environment but to continue living a productive life full of positive, not negative, stimulation.
"That's why doctors tell people to go to Florida," Portnoy said.
Twenty years from now, we'll see if it was the right advice. Julia Wright
"I'm getting old," the petite woman in a long blue gown says, with self-admiration and shock in her voice, as she reaches up to kiss yet another person at the party.
Julia Mariah Middleton Wright, the 10th child of a methodist minister, is indeed getting old-on April 2 she joined the ranks of less than 12,000 persons in the United States who are 100 years old.
With her long white hair carefully wrapped in a braid around her head and a white carnation pinned to her party dress, she sits in a huge armchair, like a young robin a large nest, looking much tinier than her 98 pounds.
"I'm so excited I don't know one person from the other," she says smiling at the 100 guests crowded into her daughter's Prince George's County home. "It's wonderful, just wonderful to be this age. I can still see everywhere and hear.
"And look," she says with a giggle and a few squirms, "I can still do the twist."
Wright grew up in Orangeburg, S.C., where she was born 100 years ago into a strict Methodist family. She has no remembrance of slavery because one of her ancestors bought his way out of bondage long before Emancipation.
She continually speaks of Claflin College in Orangeburg, from which she was graduated in 1902, as a worn diploma in her daughter's house testifies.
After a few years of teaching in South Carolina-Wright does not remember exactly how many years-she married her first husband, left for a honey-moon in New York City "and stayed there 63 years," according to Zelma Mansfield, her daughter.
Another marriage-to Amos Wright-took her first to Atlantic City, N.J., back to New York when Wright died and finally to Chapel Hill in Prince George's County to live with her son and daughter.
Wright's 98-year-old sister, Marian Middleton, is still living. However, all but one of Wright's five children are dead. Seven grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren later, what does Wright think has kept her going so long?
"I just can't tell," she says, preferring to keep her longevity a mystery. Annie Rabb
Living past 100, you may think, requires good doctors, good and good genes. Not at all, says Annie Rabb, who should know. She's 106.
"I have just been happy all the time, didn't let anything go to my heart," says the Washington resident, with a blissful smile and a satisfied look. "Of course, I couldn't do it all by myself, I have to have the Lord's help."
Annie Rabb, perhaps more than most centenarians, eats, drinks and breathes the Lord.
While her memory, she willingly concedes, is not that good any more, Rabb does remember vividly the Sunday school her mother ran almost 100 years ago in Olumbia, S.C. "That school produced a good many scholars," she says.
According to her daughter, Aria R. Albany, 74 with whom she lives, Rabb received an elementary school education in Columbia, where her father worked as the manager of a grocery store. She got married at 16, had eight children, only two of whom are still living, and in 1924, moved to Northwest Washington, quite near her daughter's present home on Crittenden Street.
For a long time, Rabb worked in other persons' homes doing "double day"-taking care of their kids, laundry, cooking, housework and then coming home nd doing the same for her own family. But, she says, she always liked that kind of work. "I really did love to wash and iron. I could iron as good as anybody when I was about 10 years old."
Since responsiblity for family chores has moved to another generation, Rabb takes it easy now. An occasional dinner in a restuarant and weekly visit to church are her main distractions. William Pinckney
William (Mac) Pinckney, according to his daughter Elizabeth Johnson, is like a walking history book. It's not surprising, since his anecdotes run back 116 years to slavery and sharecropping in Croom, Md.
"We had gotten a first-hand account of what 'Roots' was all about before it was written," Johnson said in a recent Washington Post article on Pinckney's birthday. At 56, Johnson is a half-century younger than her father.
Pinckney and scores of relatives-after 17 children, no one has been able to keep track of the number of grandchildren or great-grandchildren-have lived in the Washington area, primarily in Prince George's County, for the last 90 years. Pinckney now lives with Johnson, his youngest daughter, on Capitol Hill, where on Feb. 4 he turned 116.
At the birthday party, Pinckney told vistors that his life as a slave had been "a horror story," full of beatings and humiliations. But Pinckney, who suffers from leukemia and a kidney ailment, says reliagion has kept him from being bitter.
Strong faith, Pinckney believes, also has allowed him to live such a long life. "As long as I walk upright and keep His command, He will lengthen my days," Pinckney confided. Zachariah Blackistone
At 100 years old, Zachariah Demetrien Blackistone gave up golf. That was eight years ago. At 106, he began to feel that apartment life, with a roommate, might be pressing his luck with the Lord.
"I was getting a little shaky on my feet," Blackistone says, explaining his exodus to a Bethesda retirement and nursing home after almost 90 years of District Life. It may also explain why he gave up joging, a lifetime passion, that year.
Pressing his soft, almost wrinkleless palm into that of his listener. Blackistone says, "I live on love." Without much cajoling, though, he'll admith that imperial crab and oysters-remnants of tastes developed while growing up on the coast of St. Mary's County-may have contributed to his longevity.
Although Blackistone now is primarily confined to a wheelchair, on special occasions-such as his birthday party this year or his almost monthly visit to Blackistone, Inc., Florists, which he founded-he gets a chance to socialize.
Blackistone was one of nine children, all of whom,. he says, lived to at least 70. He came to Washington from a farm in St. Mary's when he was about 17 years old.
One day in 1893, he wheeled his first flower cart onto a corner of 14th Street, and the commercial venture has been expanding ever since. Blackistone's is now one of the largest florists in the area.
Compared with other centenarians in the Washington area, Blackistone's immediate family is rather small: Three children have led to five grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
Aside from a seafood diet and love, why does Blackistone think he's lived so long? "People who live a long time, they all work hard," he says. And thinking young has its advantages.
His eyes crease in a smile as he leans from his wheelchair to add a final thought. "Why, if you weren't so young I'd marry you," he said, kissing his visitor's hand. Larrah Hyde
Larrah Hyde vividly remembers when Oklahoma was admitted to the Union. "1907," she says quick as a jack rabbit skittering over the prairies; she did not learn the date from a history textbook. Hyde was already 28 when Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory merged to become the 46th state.
Though she's a few months past her 100th birthday ("I'm kind of proud of myself for that one"), Hyde's still-sharp memory easily takes her back to the Southwest from her current home in Oxon Hill in Prince George's County.
"I've had a very interesting life," she says matter of factly in the midst of stories about covered-wagon travel, hard benches in one-room schools, the difficult Dust Bowl years and the Depression.
Born in Texas, Hyde and her family moved to northern Missoouri in a covered wagon when she was 6 months old. "A covered wagon's all right if you have to, though it's awful slow-going," says Hyde who prefers cars or the Metrobus these days.
Hyde went to school until she was 17, quite a feat for the times, she says. "A hundred years ago, women weren't people. There were only a few things they could do to take care of themselves and I rebelled," she says, in an assured, deep voice.
"They said women couldn't learn math. I shouldn't say this, but the old saying was you could pin on diapers just as well without an education as you could with it."
There was a lot of living to do, though, before Larrah Hyde was going to settle down to marriage and children. At various times she was a bookkeeper, a stenographer and an assistant to a judge. When the first Oklahoma state payroll was drawn up, she was a part of it. From a starting salary of $25 a month, Hyde was moving up in the world.
Working for Oklahoma's first commission to regulate corporate activity, Larrah met Tom Hyde. He was a good friend and one day he popped "the question." Fifteen hours and a good dinner later, they were married.
Their one son was born not too long after, and the Hydes settled down to domestic life, first in Oklahoma City, then Tulsa. "Tulsa was a wide-open town, when they discovered oil there. There were two different factions of the Ku Klux Klan, two factions of the underworld and a dope ring." It just goes to show, she says, that nothing really changes in 100 years. "They had the same kinds of dope then as they do now."
Life only got rough, though, when the dust storms hit, along with the Depression, in the early '30s. Oklahoma farmers were forced off their land, creating more hunger and poverty than Larrah Hyde ever hopes to see again.
The Hydes made it through the Depression years relatively unscathed: Tom Hyde held a state job and Larrah Hyde rented out the extra rooms in their home. And always, there was an extra loaf of bread for some "hungry soul."
When Tom Hyde died in 1962, Larrah was in her mid-80s. After a few years of solitude it seemed a good time to return to her family. Her one son had long before left Oklahoma, and Hyde figured she wouldn't mind spending her remaining years with him, his wife and their two children.
Now, four great-grandchildren later, she says life has treated her pretty well. "I can't see anymore," she says, rhythmically carressing one of two large cats that keep her company, "and I get dizzy. But otherwise I'm fine."
Formerly an avid reader, Hyde says she misses books and her favorite hobby, gardening. "I just think a lot to keep myself busy," she says, amused by her own response. "Right now, I'm digging out what happened to me all my life." CAPTION: Picture 1, Annie Rabb, 106.; Picture 2, Zachariah Blackistone, 108.; Picture 3, Larrah Hyde, 100.; Picture 4, William Pinckney, 116. Photos by Craig Herndon-The Washington Post; Graph, By Alice Kresse-The Washington Post Picture 5, Julia Mariah Middleton Wright, left, 100, and her sister, Marian Middleton, 98. By Craig Herndon-The Washington Post