Ripeness is all, in centenarians as in cheeses

November 29, 1995|By Michael Vitez | Michael Vitez,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Sarah Knauss is 115 years old. She spends most of her days watching golf or the Home Shopping Network on television, nibbling on chocolate turtles or salted cashews in an Allentown, Pa., nursing home.

Ms. Knauss' daughter, Kathryn Sullivan, 92, drives over in her Oldsmobile for a visit every other day at precisely 3 p.m. Ms. Sullivan usually takes her mother pecan brittle, and then sits and does her needlepoint.

Ms. Knauss lived with her daughter until just five years ago. But Ms. Knauss' grandson, Robert Butz, 70, a great-grandfather himself, decided his mother could no longer care for his grandmother. He arranged for Ms. Knauss to move into Phoebe Home. Mr. Butz, who lives near Reading, visits his grandmother often. He takes snacks, too.

A 115-year-old grandmother, 92-year-old daughter and 70-year-old grandson -- three generations on Social Security -- is remarkable. But it could become more common as America's aging population continues to swell and life spans climb.

In 1960, there were 3,000 Americans age 100 or older. Today there are 54,000.

In 2050, when baby boomers are just beginning to reach 100, the Census Bureau's highest projection forecasts 2.7 million centenarians. Some demographers believe the number will be 5 million.

Researchers who have been studying this expanding class of 100-year-olds have discovered some astonishing things. Like Ms. Knauss, people who survive to 100 tend to eat what they want, seem immune to stress and, most importantly, are often far healthier than those 20 years younger.

"The centenarians I have met have, with few exceptions, reported that their 90s were essentially problem-free," said Thomas Perls, a Harvard geriatrician who heads a study of 63 centenarians in the Boston area. "Many were employed, sexually active, and enjoyed the outdoors and the arts. They basically carried on as if age were not an issue."

"Up until 10 years ago, she made all my clothes," said Ms. Knauss' daughter. "The last thing she made for me was about age 100. A cotton summer dress."

An incredible six generations of this family assembled last month for Ms. Knauss' 115th birthday. Ms. Knauss wasn't aware of the newest generation -- 2-month-old Bradley, her great-great-great-grandson -- until the child's mother placed him her lap.

"What's this?" she asked. Then, without missing a beat, she looked at Kathryn Jacoby, 46, her great-granddaughter, and laughed: "Oh, my gosh, Kathy, that makes you a grandmother!"

Ms. Knauss' doctor, Sam Cris- well, examined her the other day.

"He checked everything -- arms, legs, back, head," Ms. Knauss said. "He said everything was fine -- whether you believe him or not!"

"She's remarkable," Dr. Cris- well said. "There's no explanation for her longevity. She just seems to enjoy every day." The doctor said Ms. Knauss has experienced some memory loss, obviously, but is lucid and does not have Alzheimer's. "Mentally, she's not bad for 115," he said.

After the exam, Ms. Knauss gave him a pot holder she had crocheted.

Ms. Knauss spends virtually all her time now in her third-floor room at the Phoebe Home, cozy under a sweater and afghan.

She is a wisp of a woman now, 55 inches tall, well under 100 pounds. Her hair is white, twisted up in the back. She visits the beauty parlor in the lobby every Tuesday. Her eyesight is poor, though she was able to read her birthday cards with the morning light from her window. Her crocheting has all but stopped.

Most of the time now Ms. Knauss watches television. "She loves golf," said her daughter. "She never played, but she's an avid golf watcher. She also likes 'Oprah.' " Ms. Knauss is still in control of her bodily functions, though she needs help to walk to the bathroom.

Ms. Knauss dines alone in her room. When she arrived at the nursing home, the staff and her family encouraged her to eat in the dining room with others. She bluntly refused.

"Those people are [old]," she said. "I'm not eating with them."

Does she like being alive?

"I enjoy it because I have my health. And I can do things. Some things I can't do."

Even though many centenarians are frail and near death, the idea that the oldest among us are the sickest is wrong.

Dr. Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study, has concluded people in their 90s and even 100s are often much healthier than people 20 years younger.

A natural selection takes place, he said, a survival of the fittest. If you can live in relative health to a certain age -- and that age varies for men and women -- then you are, in his words, over the hump.

"If men can get through their 80s with good mental function, without stroke and Alzheimer's and heart disease, then they've gotten over the hump," he said. "And they can look at their 90s with optimism.

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