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Redefining longevity: the new centenarian spirit

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Today's 100-year-old has lived through two World Wars, the Depression, and every president since Teddy Roosevelt. What surprises some researchers is that 30 percent of them have done so with their health and wits intact. Something as simple (or complicated) as attitude can make the difference in living to 100 or beyond, and perhaps tip the scales toward a happy, productive second century.

These people are redefining aging as positive models of longevity, says Lynn Adler, who runs the Arizona-based nonprofit National Centenarian Awareness Project. She makes it her business to find as many centenarians as she can, profiling them on her website and acting as a publicist and cheerleader for them. Her project has its roots in an experience Ms. Adler had as a teenager in the company of her 60-something grandmother.

The two had gone shopping at a department store, recalls Adler: "When [my grandmother] went to make the purchase, the salesperson said to me 'How does she want to pay for this?' I said, 'Why don't you ask her?' I was just a kid. I was furious. She was just so condescending to my grandmother." Later, she adds, "my grandmother leaned over to me and said, 'No one wants to talk with you when you get old.' "

But Adler wants to talk to you when you get old. In her lifelong crusade against ageism, she likes to say that "centenarians are the celebrities of aging." Since starting her nonprofit in 1985, Adler has shined a light on the lives of active centenarians. By "active," she means they have "the mental acuity to continue to enjoy whatever it is that brings meaning to one's life.

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