If all continues to go as well as it has to date, on July 1 she will join the rapidly growing clan of centenarians, whose US numbers have increased to 96,548 in 2009 from 38,300 in 1990, according to the Census Bureau.
At age 92, Tuttle (best known as Faity, her childhood nickname) wrote a memoir with the prescient title “No Rocking Chair for Me” 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 concluded that only about 20 to 30 per cent of longevity is genetically determined. Lifestyle seems to be the more dominant factor.
As Tuttle said in clarion tones that belie her advanced age: “I am blessed and I’ve worked on it. 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 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 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, Tuttle is an extrovert who has many friends, a healthy dose of self-esteem and strong ties to family and community.
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. Do optimists live longer than pessimists? Yes, studies indicate. Dr Hilary A Tindle of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, 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’.
Tuttle could serve as a model for that study’s findings. Each morning, she does an hour of yoga, then dresses and goes out on the street or to the top of her Manhattan apartment building for a half-hour. Her 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.
Lunch may be soup or leftover meat, a ‘very thin’ slice of rye toast, with tea and Jell-O or fruit for dessert. At 6:30 every evening, she enjoys a cocktail before a home-cooked dinner. Tuttle, whose husband, Ben, died in 1988, lives with a dear friend, Allene Hatch, 84, an artist and author affectionately known as Squeaky. “Most days I do the cooking,” Tuttle said, “and Squeaky cleans up afterward.”
As good as her health is, it is not perfect. She describes herself as ‘a bionic woman from the waist up,’ with an artificial breast to replace the cancerous one, a heart pacemaker installed about a decade ago, a hearing aid and contact lenses.
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?