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Freda Fielder's 'secret' to a long life

What's the secret to long life?

"First thing is your belief and trust in God," says Freda Fielder, holding up her index finger. "The second thing is a positive attitude toward life. Be happy with your situation, not negative. Isn't that enough?"

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It has worked for Mrs. Fielder, who celebrates her 102nd birthday this week here in suburban St. Louis. And researchers say such characteristics - religious devotion, optimism, even a sense of humor - crop up again and again among those who have reached the century mark.

"You look at centenarians: They've been widowed, maybe several times, they've lost children, and they're able to go on, they're able to keep it in perspective," says Steve Fulks, director of the gerontology program at Bowling Green State University and head of a research project on centenarians in Ohio. "Maybe that's why they are still around. They were able to ... roll with the punches."

When Tom Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., gave personality tests to 60 centenarians, he found they had significantly fewer unhealthy feelings than the population at large. They also tend to have a sense of humor, a kind of charisma that attracts people to care for them even when they have no other family, and religious conviction. Polls show half of those 65 and over go to church each week, and three-quarters agree with statements such as "I constantly seek God's will through prayer," he points out in his new book, "Living to 100."

Next to her chair, Mrs. Fielder has a shelf stuffed with books. "I can sit here and read for hours and be as happy as a bluebird," she says. She's rereading a Bible commentary on the book of Matthew, which is full of underlined passages from earlier readings. "I read magazines once in a while, but they don't have anything uplifting."

Many centenarians make a point of staying mentally active. "It's really pretty outrageous," says Steven Latham, co-producer of the "The Living Century," a TV series that examines the life of remarkable centenarians. "When I set up a meeting with them, they actually check their calendars."

The first installment retells the life stories of Ben Levinson, who owns the world record for shot put in the over-100 category, and Rose Freedman, who paints, speaks five languages, started taking Spanish lessons recently, and still wears a suit and high heels every day.

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