Golden girls: Centenarians becoming increasingly common

Thursday, January 18, 2007
Mildred Uelsmann, 100

Living for a century may not be such a feat much longer.

With better health care and more emphasis on living healthier lifestyles, doctors say the odds of reaching 100 years old are getting better.

"There's no doubt about that," said Dr. Shelba Branscum, a professor of human environmental studies at Southeast Missouri State University. "The ability to age has improved, and it's due to a whole lot of factors."

Average life expectancy increases every four to five years, Branscum said.

"We'll continue to see that number go up another notch or two every so often," she said. "It's not unusual anymore to find people in their 100s who are still very much alive and well."

Florence Poe, 109

Branscum, who studies gerontology, said there are 18 centenarians for every 100,000 people in the United States.

"For the past several decades, life expectancy has been going up," she said. "Eventually, we'll reach a point where we won't see this anymore."

In her studies of gerontology, Branscum said she learned the human body was not made to live more than 115 years. "The body is just not capable of maintaining after that," she said. "The heart and internal organs can't live longer than 115 years."

In 2000, more than 4 million people in the United States were 85 years old or older. By 2050, the number is expected to reach 19 million.

Women may have a slight advantage of living older than men, said Dr. David Boardman, a physician at Regional Primary Care in Cape Girardeau.

Sadie Dixon, 101

On average, a woman will outlive a man by about four years. The life expectancy age of women is about 80, where men on average live to be about 76.

"There are certain risk factors that men face -- lifestyle choices, genetic predisposition, noncompliance with medical screening -- those are all contributing factors," Boardman said.

Boardman said making good lifestyle choices can help someone reach old age. "Making those choices like eating healthy, exercising routinely and avoiding things that are detrimental to your health such as smoking and abusing alcohol are the main things," he said.

Routine medical screenings like cholesterol, mammograms and colonoscopies also increase your life expectancy.

So how can you live for a century?

Three local women shared their secrets for becoming centenarians.

Florence Poe was born Aug. 24, 1897.

"God has had his hand on me," said the 109-year-old, who lives at the Fountainbleau Lodge in Cape Girardeau.

"I've had some awfully sick spells, but God has held me," Poe said.

The Farmington, Mo., native is blind and spent time in hospitals for a ruptured appendix and collapsed lung. She moved to the nursing home three years ago. "I don't know why the Lord has kept me here this long. He's been good to me," Poe said.

Across town, Mildred Uelsmann, 100, resides in the Lutheran Home. She rides a stationary bike every day and walks the halls of the facility. When the weather is warmer, she walks outside.

The former resident of Scott City was raised on a farm, which she worked on for most of her life. Uelsmann said she was always outside and kept a garden until she moved to the nursing home in 2002.

"Hard work -- that's my secret," Uelsmann said. "So far, I've been pretty lucky."

In Jackson, Sadie Dixon, 101, lives at the Jackson Manor.

"Every day I exercise by walking the halls. I eat three times a day, I try to eat healthy," she said. "Playing rummy keeps my mind sharp."

Dixon was born Oct. 18, 1905, on a farm near Sedgewickville, Mo., where she lived for 85 years.

"I'm working hard to reach my 102nd birthday," she said.

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