Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/March 1887/The Habits and Family History of Centenarians
By Professor HUMPHRY, F. R. S.
THOUGH it must be granted even of the centenarian, as of all others, that he soon "passeth away and is gone," yet happily we are not obliged to admit that his "strength is but labor and sorrow." In many instances, on the contrary, he has, if not a green, yet a mellow and cheerful old age, one of happiness to himself and pleasure to others, brightened by a vivid though calm interest in the present, and unshadowed by apprehension of that which is to come. "Pay me a visit when you next come to Leamington," were usually among the words of adieu by Miss Hastings, at the age of one hundred and three, to her friends; "I shall like to see you, and hear how you are going on." There is a great moral in this; for while we are denizens in this Mammon, we are bound to make to ourselves friends of it, which is best done by a cheerful, happy use of it, and by enjoying it and using well the powers and privileges it gives us; and the injunction is none the less imperative and valuable when the sojourn in it has lasted for five score years and more. Moreover, in this, as in so many other instances, the influences are reciprocal; for associated as cheerfulness and happiness are with good doing and kind feeling, they are also much dependent upon the smooth working of the several parts of a sound bodily machinery, to the of which they in their turn not a little contribute. So long, indeed, as the body is enjoyable, and its functions go glibly and smoothly on, the tenant is commonly desirous of continuing its occupation. When it ceases to be so, when lassitude and weariness supervene, when means of communication with others are stopping, when the "sans everything" condition is impending, he is content to quit; and, when the tenement becomes distressing or painful, he is anxious to do so. Still, though the capacities for activity and work maybe passing away, and life's "fretful fever" with them, the old person may comfort himself with the reflection that a useful mission still remains in the benign influence of a serene and benevolent disposition, which calmly estimates the things of time and sense at their true value, and which, leniently regarding the short-comings of others, gives the true crown of glory to the hoary head.
It is most satisfactory to find that the exercise—even the full exercise—of the various powers, mental and bodily, is not merely compatible with, but is conducive to, great age; that, as has been well said, "the harmonious development of the many-sided aspects of man is conducive to health and the prolongation of life," and that there need be no fear of entering heartily and actively, and with full interest and energy, into the assigned work of life, physical or mental. The body is made, not for ease and sloth, but for labor and play, for work and enjoyment, better still for enjoyment of work. Work, enjoyed as it should be, promotes health in body, and especially if stimulated by other motives than personal ambition and gain, engenders that cheerful, placid frame of mind which is one of the adjuncts of centenarianism.
France has lately celebrated the centenary of a philosopher and a chemist, M. Chevreul, who the same night occupied the President's box at the opera; and we are told that a Chinese centenarian recently passed the examination which qualified him to enter the highest academy of the Mandarins. Delightful was the account of Lady Smith, in whom a bright, intelligent mind and a brisk, healthy body had been in uninterrupted harmonious action for a hundred and three years, and who to the last took a lively interest in the world's political and other movements. Among the centenarians on our own list, the intellect is stated to have been high in eleven and low in five only; twenty are reported as strong, sixteen of average strength, and twelve only as feeble. Several were remarkable for mental and bodily activity and energy during their long lives. Many had been engaged in hardy bodily toil, or mental work, or successfully, in various occupations, and, in different ways, had played their parts effectually on the world's stage to the end of the long drama in better plight than the poet has represented them. I often wish Shakespeare had lived to give a brighter version of his seven stages, and to portray the old man not lean and slippered, but well favored and booted, keen in life's interests, and happy in promoting the welfare and enjoyment of others. Even in the bedridden state, of which the tables give seven examples (four males and three females), one of whom had been bedridden for seven years, all is not cheerless. The quiet coziness, the even temperature, the freedom from exposure, and the reservation to the vital organs of nerve-energy and nutritive material, consequent on the diminished use of the muscular system contribute to prolong the lives of some feeble persons who still retain the pleasures of intellectual occupation and social intercourse, to say nothing of the enjoyment of sleep and the gratification of the appetite; and it is curious, though not unfrequently to be observed, that persistence in bed actually increases both sleep and appetite. Some aged people lie in bed in the winter; and, in the dull routine of the workhouse, many old people drift into the bedridden state.
In our tables, as usual, in records of longevity, the women preponderate over the men (thirty-six to sixteen), in spite of the dangers incidental to child-bearing and the diseases associated with the varying demands made, at different periods, upon the organs connected with that process. This is obviously, in great measure, to be attributed to the comparative immunity of the woman from the exposures and risks to which man is subjected, as well as to her greater temperance in eating and drinking, and her greater freedom from the anxieties attendant upon the world's labor and business. Still, as I have said in a former essay ("British Medical Journal," May 9, 1885, page 928), there appears also to be a greater inherent vitality in the female, as evinced by the fact that, even in the first year of life, when the conditions and exposures of male and female infants are the same, the mortality of girls is less than that of boys. A somewhat larger number of boys are born, but they are more difficult to rear, so that the females
soon take the numerical lead, and they maintain it with almost steadily increasing ratio to the end. It is also to be learned from the analysis of the tables that the elasticity of the thorax, as evinced by the condition of the costal cartilages, and its capacity for dilatation during inspiration, is better preserved in women than in men. In the matter of the arcus senilis, also, the woman has the advantage; but in the condition of the arterial system, much difference is not shown.
Of the 36 women, 26 had been married, and 11 had large families; and it may be some consolation to young mothers and their friends to find that 8 of the 26 married before they were twenty—1 at sixteen and 2 at seventeen. The dangers, happily diminishing, which are incidental to child-bearing, must not be forgotten; but, irrespective of these, the process itself and the attendants thereon do not seem to militate against longevity. Indeed, the capacity for the full exercise of this, like that of the other normal functions, is one of the qualities in those who have the other requisites for attaining to great age. One only of the married women was childless; but neither the age at which she was married nor the duration of her married life are given.
It might be anticipated, indeed, from the matrimonial tendency, and the prolific quality evinced by the tables, the average number of children born to each, whether male or female, being 6, that there would be, through inheritance, a gradual increase in the centenarian breed; and it is probable that this is the case, and that the duration of life is, from this and other favoring causes, gradually being extended. The life-period of the children we have no means of determining with accuracy, the returns being, from various causes, imperfect; but we may safely accredit them with, at least, an average longevity. It is, moreover, a point of some interest that many of the centenarians were members of large families, averaging, indeed, 7 or 8; those designated as "only children" being limited to 2. Of the 52, 41 had been married, and 11, of whom 10 were women, had remained single; but we can not from this draw any inference as to influence of matrimony upon longevity. Possibly something may be gleaned from the analysis of the numerous reports I have received of persons between eighty and one hundred.
The fact that 12 of the centenarians were "first children" does not accord with the idea entertained by some persons that first children are at a physical disadvantage. The generally prevalent custom of inheritance by the first-born, and the Mosaic injunction (Exodus xii,2), "Sanctify unto me all the first-born; whatsoever opened the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast, it is mine," are also scarcely in harmony with such a view. Nevertheless, some confirmation of the view is furnished by the feeling on this matter, founded, it may be presumed, on experience in racing-stables, which, I have been informed, is not in favor of firstlings. In the case of one of our centenarians, the parents were first cousins.
The tables and the analyses of present and past condition yield nothing striking or even novel or unexpected, or in that respect interesting; but they are not therefore less valuable or important. The average centenarian qualities are precisely those which might have been anticipated: a good family history; a well-made frame of average stature (5 feet 8 inches, which is rather above the average, in the male, 5 feet 3 inches in the female); spare rather than stout, robust, with good health, little troubled with ailments of any kind, with good digestion, regular daily action of bowels; active, capable of much exertion, with the restorative advantages of good, sound sleep permitting or inducing early rising; good vocal organs; a good appetite moderately indulged, with little need of, and little consumption of, alcohol or animal food; an energetic yet placid temperament; a good intelligence; the hair holding its ground and its color well; the organs of sight and hearing performing their functions well and long. Our centenarians afford, in short, good examples through life of the mens sana in corpora sano; and in by far the greater number there was a total absence of any evidence of rheumatic or gouty affection, past or present, in the joints of the hands and fingers—a condition which is not unfrequently regarded as one of the heralds of old age, and which, doubtless, like many other local maladies of which it may be taken as a sample, is often prophylactic against other more serious maladies. It seems that the frame which is destined for great age needs no such prophylactics, and engenders none of the peccant humors for which the finger-joints may find a vent. To have a vent for such humors may be good, but it is less good than to be without them. Of the eight in whom those joints were stiff or deformed, it may be observed that one, a man, always "drank as much as I could, and always will do"; a second and third, poor women, had been subject to much exposure, and had a rough life, following the army in various parts of the world; of the case of the fourth, also a female, in whom these joints were stiff, we have no account of the habits. The fifth, a female, appears to have been a temperate person in comfortable circumstances, in whom no particular reason for the deformity of the joints can be assigned; and the same may be said of the sixth and seventh, except that the latter was in the habit of partaking rather freely of animal food, and also probably of the eighth, though we have not much information as to her past habits. It is rather remarkable that all of these, except the first, are females; of these females, three were poor, and the others in comfortable or in affluent circumstances.
Teeth.—The loss of teeth presents some interesting problems. It seems to be an associate of civilization, partly because the varied and peculiar conditions of civilized life tend to induce it, and partly because those conditions have the effect of preserving the body beyond the limits, which, under natural or uncivilized conditions, appear to have been assigned to it. Twenty-four of our centenarians had no teeth, some had been without them many years, and the average number retained was only four or five, which, in many instances, we may conclude to have been of little value. The artificial substitutes were used in so few instances, that we can not from them form an estimate of the aid afforded by these appliances in the prolongation of life; but that they do contribute to the maintenance of health and the prolongation of life can scarcely be a matter of doubt. The teeth had disappeared, as we have before found to be the case ("British Medical Journal," May 9, 1885, page 929) in the upper jaw more than in the lower; but the tables do not show so much difference between the men and the women as I then marked.
It is somewhat remarkable that, though as many as twenty-eight used glasses, thirty-five, including many who used glasses, are reported to have been in the enjoyment of good sight. The occurrence of presbyopia does not seem to be associated with, or to be a prelude to, inconvenience or impairment of sight beyond that which may be corrected by glasses. These had been used by some for forty or fifty years; and in three it appears that the defect was spontaneously rectified, and that as they grew older they became able to dispense with glasses.
That the majority of centenarians are content, as we find them to be, with three meals in the day, and are moderate or small eaters, partaking of little animal food and little alcohol, is in harmony with the lowered activity of the muscular and other organs, and the consequent lowered demand upon the nutritive processes and the nutritive supply. That nevertheless the rate of the pulse, averaging 70, and that of the respiration, averaging 23, is maintained, may be accounted for by the diminished elasticity of the circulatory and respiratory apparatus. The arteries become less capable of accelerating the bloodstream, and the vital capacity of the chest is much reduced, as shown by the slight difference in the chest-girth between the state of inspiration and that of expiration.
The sleep-duration, averaging nearly nine hours, indicates also a slowness, a feebleness, of the restorative processes. Repair is tardily and with difficulty striving to keep pace with wear. We know that it is one element in the developmental law of growth and decay, that it should not quite do so in the aged frame. Up to adolescence repair has the mastery, and the body gains in weight and strength; in middle age, repair is about equal to wear; but in later life its gradual failure, attended with diminishing weight and strength, conducts the body slowly along its normal course to dissolution. Long, good sleep, does something to put a drag on the downward course, and is a great sustainer of the aged frame. Much difference in sleep-duration is noted in the tables. In some, sleep is said to have been short and indifferent, or bad, perhaps owing to peculiar disturbing causes; but in 33 out of 44 it is said to have been good.
The maladies of these old people range themselves chiefly under the head of weakness, evinced by inability to put forth or maintain much effort of any kind, bodily or mental. Fatigue soon comes on; the muscular weakness proceeding to partial or complete loss of the use of the lower limbs, and to tremor of the upper limbs. The difficulty of penning a straight line resulting from this latter, being the cause of the smallness of the handwriting, often noticeable of old people. The weakness of the brain evinces itself in impairment of memory; in slowness of apprehension; in inability to fix the thoughts long on one thing; and the tendency, therefore, to wander from one subject to another, and to travel to and fro, which may pass on to want of control, or imbecility, or even to dementia, This last, saddest state of all, was witnessed only in two of our centenarians. Indeed, the brain in many held out as well as or better than other organs—which may be regarded one of the bright rays, if not the brightest, in the centenarian landscape.
The weakness, or failing, seems to have been about equal in the several great organs, showing that these organs presented to the last that good balance of enduring strength Avhich is so essential to longevity. The lungs are, through life, the most sensitive to atmospheric changes, as well as to alterations in the conditions of the blood. Hence, bronchitic and pneumonic affections are a common source of distress, and a frequent cause of death at all periods of life; but it does not clearly appear that the very aged are more liable to them than those less advanced in years.
In the majority in our table, the action of the heart was regular, the pulse small and compressible, and evidences of arterial degeneration not manifest. In some of those who were auscultated, more or less bruit was heard, indicating some valvular or arterial roughness; but it made no apparent impression, and the individuals were unconscious of any defect. The slowness of micturition, mentioned in two men, and the incontinence in three females, as well as the frequency of micturition in three, may also be regarded as resulting from atony, rather than from disease. Indeed, these old people had outlived the period which is most liable to prostatic and other urinary troubles. Other minor maladies and discomforts, of which we may conclude that centenarians have their share, have, in many instances, probably been thought not worthy of mention.
Though the majority had suffered little from illness at former periods, some up to the very end of their long life, yet it is not unsatisfactory to find that the effects of illnesses, even when severe, do not always preclude longevitv. One had rheumatic fever when young, and rheumatism afterward; one had epilepsy from seventeen to seventy; one had renal disease, with loss of sight, at thirty, from which there was complete recovery; one had an abscess connected with the spine, a stiff knee from injury at fifty, and diarrhœa from seventy-five to eighty, besides fevers and other ailments; one had gall-stones at sixty; one was ten years in an asylum after a confinement; one had peritonitis; one had had fever at twenty-five, also jaundice and small-pox; one had "bad-stroke" at sixty, for which she was bled, and two less severe strokes at seventy; one had renal dropsy at eighty-two, lasting for two years; one had acute bronchitis at ninety-five; one had paralysis at ninety; one had severe herdes zoster; one had rheumatic fever at seventy; one had severe bronchitis at eighty-two; one had paralysis at seven; four had fever—two of them badly.
The recoveries from illness at great age are to be noted, "We find that one case recovered at eighty-two from renal dropsy, which lasted two years, and at ninety-eight recovered from a large slougb on the thigh, caused by a bruise; another from acute bronchitis at ninety-five, and pneumonia and erysipelas of the head at ninety-nine; a third from rheumatic fever at seventy; another from severe bronchitis at eighty-two; and one from severe fever at eighty-four; six had suffered injury to the hip after the age of ninety; one broke the neck of the thigh-bone at ninety; and one at one hundred and one, the latter so far recovering as to go on crutches.
Most interesting and important of all are the life-habits of these old people, among which activity, out-of-door exercise, and early rising, with moderation in diet and alcohol, stand out in strong relief, and are evidently among the important factors in longevity. At the same time, we perceive that most of them may be regarded as the attributes of the well-wearing body, that is to say, they are the resultants of health, as well as the promoters of it. The healthy, vigorous body can scarcely be otherwise than active in one way or other; and few things tend to promote health and vigor more than activity—activity without excitement—an activity which is not forced beyond the measure of good and easy repair—an activity which does not wear the body out. The candle ought to burn briskly, and, as a general rule, at both ends, regarding the head or brain as one, and the limbs or locomotory agents as the other; but it should not burn too fast; and it may be that, in some persons, an extra rate at one end is better to be compensated by a lower rate at the other. Some persons, at least, seem to find that severe and continued brain-work is incompatible with much leg-work. Into this question, however, I will not enter.
Upon out-of-door activity, with the refreshing influence of open air, stress should be laid, for it must not be supposed that exercises and athletics indoors, where they are much more exhausting, are a sufficient substitute, especially in the case of young and growing persons.
Such activity causes a brisk trade in the nutritive market; and the demand is pretty sure to be met by the supply, when food can be obtained. The moderation or spareness in diet, notably in the past habits of our centenarians, limiting the supply, prevents a wasteful overflooding of the market, and compels an economical and good employment of all that is brought there. Surplusage can do but harm. The body-associates itself with a certain well-known evil agent in finding for idle food "some mischief still to do," although, in some individuals, a drain-age for unused material may be made through the intestinal or renal or cutaneous organs, which, be it remembered, were never meant to serve that purpose, and which are likely to suffer from the strain thus put upon them. In many a more deleterious vent is found in gout, bilious attacks, etc., which, at the same time, cause a temporary arrest of supply, or in graver inflammatory attacks, or the still graver malignant affections. The temperance in all things of our centenarians has, without doubt, been one great means of keeping order in their nutritive system, and preventing aberrations into morbid processes. Few more mischievous notions have found their way into common acceptance than the idea that strength is proportionate to the amount of food taken; and it is accepted and mischievous, no doubt, in a greater degree than it would otherwise be, because it rests upon the basis of truth that strength can not be maintained without a sufiicient supply of food.
The total abstainers will not fail to observe that twelve of our centenarians had been through life, or for a long period, in their ranks; that twenty took little alcohol; that this was, in the case of some of them, very little; and that eight were moderate. No. 8, it is true, often drank to excess on festive occasions; No. 14 was a free beer-drinker; and No.35 "drank like a fish during his whole life," which probably means when he could, for it is added that "he could not usually get much." The exceptions, therefore, show little against the rule. It is, perhaps, scarcely less important to note that our centenarians were, for the most part, small meat-eaters.
The early rising was in many of the instances necessitated by their occupations. Still, this habit must be regarded as an associate or sequence of the healthful activity just mentioned, and of an activity pervading the reparative work which has to be done in sleep—an activity which quickly and thoroughly refits the body for its next day's work, and gives the energy, the willingness, the desire to resume it. Sleep should come quickly, be intense while it lasts, and cease quickly and completely; quite wake or quite asleep; no hovering between the two; no need of, or desire for, a little more slumber, a little more sleep. "When one turns in bed, it is time to turn out," whether rightly or wrongly attributed to the Duke of "Wellington, is a saying worthy of him, and accords with the energy that contributed to make his life great as well as long.
While we thus gain more clear knowledge of the qualities for, and the adjuncts to, centcnarianisra, an examination of the table shows that there is no royal road to it. We see that it is attained under a variety of conditions, and that few persons can be said to be excluded from the prospect of it. With regard to certain of the important requisites, we can not alter our position. No one can make his family-history better than it is, or make his body to be wound up for a longer period than its normal life's span; but it is the duty of each to endeavor to make it cover that span, and to go as long as its appointed time. The uncertainty as to that term, as it is one of the greatest blessings of life, so should it be one stimulus to us to ascertain and to follow the means most suited for prolonging life, especially as we find the result of our investigations to be that those are the means best calculated to turn it to good account and to make it happy.
Analysis of the Table of Centenarians.
By A. Francis, M.E.C.S.,of King's College, Cambridge.
Age.—Fifty-two returns; average age, about 1025 years. Males.—Sixteen returns; average age, about 1024} years; respective ages, 108,105, 104,3 aged 103,4 aged 102,2 aged 101, 1014, 3 aged 100. Females.—Thirty-six returns; average age, about 1026 years; respective ages, 2 aged 108, 106, 3 aged 105, 3 aged 104, 4 aged 103, 1022, 3 aged 102, 7 aged 101, 1004, 1002, 10 aged 100. In 11 cases, the age returned was verified by baptismal certificates or other records; of these, 2 were males, aged 101 and 100; and 9 were females, aged 108, 106, 104, 103, 102, 101, 101, 1002, and 100.
Male or Female.—Fifty-two returns; M.16, F.36.
stiff and deformed, 1; the last was stiff from chronic rheumatism, and deformed from contraction of palmar fascia; slightly deformed, 2; one of these was "from rheumatoid arthritis."
daily half a mile, can walk three miles," another is "fond of sawing firewood;" two still work, one of these "attended Hexham market, two years ago"; one "worked in a field at 102"; one was "much out."
becomes 21 to 22 per minute. Regular and Irregular.—Twenty-four returns; regular, 21; irregular, 3.
Lamarck's Herbarium.—The botanical department in the Museum of Paris has just added to its collection the herbarium of Lamarck. On Lamarck's death this work passed into the hands of Mr. Roeper, Professor of Botany in the University of Rostock, who incorporated it with his own. On his death, in March, 1885, it was acquired by the Government of Mecklenburg-Schwerin for the University of Rostock. Professor Roeper's successor afterward offered it to the Paris Museum. The herbarium is contained in twenty-one voluminous cases, and comprises 10,000 species in perfect preservation, accompanied by labels and manuscript descriptions, and designs from the hands of the author.