Words of wisdom from the longest-living people in the world



Words of wisdom from the longest-living people in the world

WHEN WE STARTED working on this book, we didn’t want to just research the factors that contribute to a long and happy life; we wanted to hear from the true masters of this art.
The interviews we conducted in Okinawa merit their own chapter, but in the section that precedes it we have provided an overview of the life philosophies of a few international champions of longevity. We’re talking about supercentenarians—people who live to 110 years of age or more.

The term was coined in 1970 by Norris McWhirter, editor of The Guinness Book of World Records. Its use became more widespread in the 1990s, after it appeared in William Strauss and Neil Howe’s Generations. Today there are an estimated 300 to 450 supercentenarians in the world, although the age of only around 75 of them has been confirmed. They aren’t superheroes, but we could see them as such for having spent far more time on this planet than the average life expectancy would predict.

Given the rise in life expectancy around the world, the number of supercentenarians might also increase. A healthy and purposeful life could help us join their ranks.

Let’s take a look at what a few of them have to say.

Misao Okawa (117)

“Eat and sleep, and you’ll live a long time. You have to learn to relax.”

According to the Gerontology Research Group, until April 2015, the oldest living person in the world was Misao Okawa, who passed away in a care facility in Osaka, Japan, after living for 117 years and 27 days.

The daughter of a textile merchant, she was born in 1898, when Spain lost its colonies in Cuba and the Philippines, and the United States annexed Hawaii and launched Pepsi-Cola. Until she was 110, this woman—who lived in three different centuries—cared for herself unassisted.

When specialists asked about her self-care routine, Misao answered simply, “Eating sushi and sleeping,” to which we should add, having a tremendous thirst for life. When they inquired about her secret for longevity, she answered with a smile, “I ask myself the same thing.”

Proof that Japan continues to be a factory of long life: In July of the same year Sakari Momoi passed away at 112 years and 150 days old. At the time he was the oldest man in the world, though he was younger than fifty-seven women.

María Capovilla (116)

“I’ve never eaten meat in my life.”

Born in Ecuador in 1889, María Capovilla was recognized by Guinness as the world’s oldest person. She died of pneumonia in 2006, at 116 years and 347 days old, leaving behind three children, twelve grandchildren, and twenty great- and great-great-grandchildren.

She gave one of her last interviews at age 107, sharing her memories and her thoughts:
I’m happy, and I give thanks to God, who keeps me going. I never thought I’d live so long, I thought I’d die long ago. My husband, Antonio Capovilla, was the captain of a ship. He passed away at 84. We had two daughters and a son, and now I have many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Things were better, back in the old days. People behaved better. We used to dance, but we were more restrained; there was this one song I loved dancing to: “María” by Luis Alarcón. I still remember most of the words. I also remember many prayers, and say them every day.

I like the waltz, and can still dance it. I also still make crafts, I still do some of the things I did when I was in school.
When she had finished recalling her past, she began to dance—one of her great passions—with an energy that made her seem decades younger.

When asked about her secret for longevity, she responded simply, “I don’t know what the secret to long life is. The only thing I do is I’ve never eaten meat in my life. I attribute it to that.”

Jeanne Calment (122)

“Everything’s fine.”

Born in Arles, France, in February 1875, Jeanne Calment lived until August 4, 1997, making her, at 122, the oldest person of verified age in history. She jokingly said that she “competed with Methuselah,” and there is no question that she broke numerous records as she went on celebrating birthdays.

She died of natural causes at the end of a happy life during which she denied herself almost nothing. She rode a bicycle until she turned 100. She lived on her own until 110, when she agreed to move into a nursing home after accidentally starting a small fire in her apartment. She stopped smoking at 120, when her cataracts started making it hard for her to bring a cigarette to her lips.

One of her secrets may have been her sense of humor. As she said on her 120th birthday, “I see badly, I hear badly, and I feel bad, but everything’s fine.”

Walter Breuning (114)

“If you keep your mind and body busy, you’ll be around a long time.”

Born in Minnesota in 1896, Walter Breuning was able to see three centuries in his lifetime. He died in Montana in 2011, from natural causes; he’d had two wives and a fifty-year career on the railroad. At eighty-three he retired to an assisted living center in Montana, where he remained until his death. He is the second-oldest man (of verified age) ever born in the United States.

He gave many interviews in his final years, insisting that his longevity stemmed from, among other things, his habit of eating only two meals per day and working for as many years as he could. “Your mind and your body. You keep both busy,” he said on his 112th birthday, “you’ll be here a long time.” Back then, he was still exercising every day.

Among Breuning’s other secrets: He had a habit of helping others, and he wasn’t afraid of dying. As he declared in a 2010 interview with the Associated Press, “We’re all going to die. Some people are scared of dying. Never be afraid to die. Because you’re born to die.”

Before passing away in 2011, he is said to have told a pastor that he’d made a deal with God: If he wasn’t going to get better, it was time to go.

Alexander Imich (111)

“I just haven’t died yet.”

Born in Poland in 1903, Alexander Imich was a chemist and parapsychologist residing in the United States who, after the death of his predecessor in 2014, became the oldest man of authenticated age in the world. Imich himself died shortly thereafter, in June of that year, leaving behind a long life rich with experiences.

Imich attributed his longevity to, among other things, never drinking alcohol. “It’s not as though I’d won the Nobel Prize,” he said upon being declared the world’s oldest man. “I never thought I’d get to be so old.” When asked about his secret to living so long, his answer was “I don’t know. I just haven’t died yet.”

Ikigai artists

The secret to long life, however, is not held by supercentenarians alone. There are many people of advanced age who, though they haven’t made it into Guinness World Records, offer us inspiration and ideas for bringing energy and meaning to our lives.

Artists, for example, who carry the torch of their ikigaiinstead of retiring, have this power.

Art, in all its forms, is an ikigai that can bring happiness and purpose to our days. Enjoying or creating beauty is free, and something all human beings have access to.

Hokusai, the Japanese artist who made woodblock prints in the ukiyo-e style and lived for 88 years, from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, added this postscript to the first edition of his One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji:
All that I have produced before the age of 70 is not worth being counted. It is at the age of 73 that I have somewhat begun to understand the structure of true nature, of animals and grasses, and trees and birds, and fishes and insects; consequently at 80 years of age I shall have made still more progress; at 90 I hope to have penetrated into the mystery of things; at 100 years of age I should have reached decidedly a marvelous degree, and when I shall be 110, all that I do, every point and every line, shall be instinct with life.
In the pages that follow, we’ve collected some of the most inspirational words from artists interviewed by Camille Sweeney for the New York Times. Of those still living, none have retired, and all still enjoy their passion, which they plan to pursue until their final breath, demonstrating that when you have a clear purpose, no one can stop you.

The actor Christopher Plummer, still working at eighty-six, reveals a dark desire shared by many who love the profession: “We want to drop dead onstage. That would be a nice theatrical way to go.”

Osamu Tezuka, the father of modern Japanese manga, shared this feeling. Before he died in 1989, his last words as he drew one final cartoon were “Please, just let me work!”

The eighty-six-year-old filmmaker Frederick Wiseman declared on a stroll through Paris that he likes to work, which is why he does it with such intensity. “Everybody complains about their aches and pains and all that, but my friends are either dead or are still working,” he said.

Carmen Herrera, a painter who just entered her one hundredth year, sold her first canvas at age eighty-nine. Today her work is in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art. When asked how she viewed her future, she responded, “I am always waiting to finish the next thing. Absurd, I know. I go day by day.”
For his part, naturalist and author Edward O. Wilson asserted, “I feel I have enough experience to join those who are addressing big questions. About ten years ago, when I began reading and thinking more broadly about the questions of what are we, where did we come from and where are we going, I was astonished at how little this was being done.”

Ellsworth Kelly, an artist who passed away in 2015 at the age of ninety-two, assured us that the idea that we lose our faculties with age is, in part, a myth, because instead we develop a greater clarity and capacity for observation. “It’s one thing about getting older, you see more. . . . Every day I’m continuing to see new things. That’s why there are new paintings.”

At eighty-six, the architect Frank Gehry reminds us that some buildings can take seven years “from the time you’re hired until you’re finished,” a fact that favors a patient attitude with regard to the passage of time. The man responsible for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, however, knows how to live in the here and now: “You stay in your time. You don’t go backward. I think if you relate to the time you’re in, you keep your eyes and ears open, read the paper, see what’s going on, stay curious about everything, you will automatically be in your time.”





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