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.
"I wanted to help dispel some of the stereotypes people have of old age as a time of disinterest and decrepitude," she says. "I thought that by showing some positive models we could influence the other issues – the stereotypes and the ageism, and give people some positives to counter the prevailing view."
The "centenarian spirit," says Adler, is a group of traits associated with exceptionally long, active lives, including courage and a sense of humor. But it's attitude, too: "It's the remarkable ability to renegotiate life at every turn, to accept the losses that come with aging, and not let it stop them.... It's not just how long you live, but how well."
Medical researchers do see a connection between attitude and the ability to live an active life, says Mr. Martin: "It's easier to see that than to document it. Most of the research looks at health issues and longevity, but what gets people there often works very differently. I think through our studies on personality and engagement and mental health [there is] some good evidence that ... staying active and being involved is a major contributor to longevity.... They may be 100, but they're not finished yet."