She’s still busy at 105. What secrets and science are behind Canada’s ‘super agers’?

Angeline Charlebois keeps a busy schedule.

The 105-year-old Levack, Ont., woman spends Tuesday afternoons in town playing cards with her friends at the golden age club, often bringing home-baked treats to share with her friends. Charlebois is an avid reader and loves to sew. She makes hats for babies at the nearby hospital — having picked up knitting as a new hobby when she was 100 years old.

“I’m not someone to just sit down. I’m motivated. I do things and I like to do things,” Charlebois said, sitting in the living room of the two-bedroom town house where she’s been living on her own for nearly 30 years.

Charlebois beams when she talks about her big family, and proudly shows off pictures of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren on the walls of her home, about 50 kilometres northwest of Sudbury.

She’s extremely social, and says she likes to have a drink on the weekends with her family. She’s partial to beer or rye and water, and she puts Irish cream in her coffee after mass every Sunday.

She’s used to people who are astounded by her energy and good health at 105 years old.

“I don’t really have a secret, it’s just good, plain living,” she said.

Angela Roberts is the Canadian research lead on an international study looking to uncover what contributes to the long, healthy lives of “super agers” like Charlebois — defined as people 80 and older that have the memory of someone 20 to 30 years younger.

Ongoing research at four American universities and Western University in London, Ont., is examining trends among the 5,000 super agers involved in the study. While a cognitive test would need to be done to confirm Charlebois fits the criteria, the 105-year-old “certainly sounds like a super ager,” Roberts said.

Like Charlebois, most super agers report having close, meaningful relationships with friends or family, Roberts said.

“Human connection, seeing and being with other people face-to-face, feeding off the emotional exchange is really important,” she said.

“We see this depth of social connection as perhaps being a defining piece of exceptional cognitive aging, and indeed that aligns with research that shows that social isolation is harmful in aging and can lead to dementia and contribute to cognitive decline.”

Roberts said there is ongoing research to better understand the relationship between social connection and healthy aging, and why the brains of super agers look different compared with their peers. Brain scans of those 80 and older in the study look a lot like the scans of someone in their 50s or 60s, Roberts said, because their brains have not atrophied or shrunk at the expected rate for someone their age.

“We know the approximate rate that brains shrink each year, each decade. Our super agers defy that.”

In many cases, super agers have a section of their brain that is more robust than the average 50-year-old, Roberts said. Scans show that within the arch-shaped anterior cingulate gyrus in the brain, a region connected to emotion and behaviour, super agers have an excess of something called von Economo neurons.

“Von Economo neurons are thought to be important for social behaviour, though we’ve rarely studied them in humans,” Roberts explained. The neurons have been studied in whales and elephants and are believed to be connected to the animals’ social pod and herd behaviour.

“Our super agers are really showing us that meaningful social behaviour may be linked to a biology that we see exclusively in our super agers,” Roberts said.

Roberts said while there is much that scientists still don’t know, researchers are considering hypotheses that explore why certain people are biologically predisposed to strong social connection.

George Cooper, 100, who lives in Quispamsis, N.B., about 20 kilometres northeast of Saint John, is described by a local legion member as the friendliest man in town.

The centenarian, who celebrated the milestone in May with seven birthday parties, lives alone in his apartment and loves to play music, chat with neighbours and spend time with family and friends at the legion.

“I’ve made a number of violins that I play … Just last year I built a cello,” Cooper said in a recent phone interview. “Wait a moment, I need to play it for you!”

He set the phone down before promptly returning to the call, playing a tune in a deep tenor vibrato. The cello is one of seven instruments Cooper plays.

He takes great joy in the success of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and was overjoyed when his first great-great-grandchild was born last year.

During the summer Cooper spends a lot of time tending to his many vegetables at a community garden plot. “I’ve got 24 tomato plants right now …. I grow bok choy, green beans, peppers, radishes, beets … all different types of lettuce.”

Cooper was born into a large family in the small rural community of Connors, N.B., but the family with six children moved about 420 kilometres southeast to Saint John when Cooper was just five years old after his father died.

“We had to move. Nobody up there (in Connors) would help us because we were mixed marriage,” he said, referring to the fact that his father was Anglican and his mother was Catholic.

He started working when he was very young, in farming, carpentry and plumbing before joining the military. Cooper is proud to have been a member of Canada’s first parachute brigade, which he joined in 1943, and was deployed to England in December 1944, near the end of the Second World War.

He was married in 1949, and throughout much of the 1950s and 60s he and his wife taught ballroom dancing. He built them a four-bedroom home in 1975 with help from his son-in-law. His wife died in 1992 at the age of 66, which Cooper said left him heartbroken.

He went on to remarry in 1999, and he frequently visits his second wife at a nearby seniors complex. Cooper said she is receiving care for encephalitis and has lost most of her memory.

Roberts said it’s very common for super agers to show great resilience in the face of life’s challenges and losses.

“Something we see across all of our research sites is that super agers have a high sense of personal resilience. They have not had easy lives, and they are incredibly resilient in the face of challenges,” Roberts said.

“Our super agers are really showing us that meaningful social behaviour may be linked to a biology that we see exclusively in our super agers,” Roberts said.

When asked what’s his secret to longevity, Cooper quickly responds with a joke: “I have good genes and I wear them well.”

He said he gets asked about his secrets for a long life. “I say: don’t walk slow, walk fast. And do a lot of singing. And learn a new language. I don’t care what language you learn, but learn a new language and keep your mind active. Always read.”

Charlebois insists there is no special trick to making it to 100, and credits healthy habits and cooking for her longevity. “I eat well. I make my own stuff, I make stuff from scratch, and I eat well every day. I sleep well. And I’m a person who looks ahead.”

Every morning after her oats-and-berries breakfast, Charlebois sits at her dining table to play four rounds of solitaire.

“It’s my start of the day,” she said. “I see if I can beat him or not, if my day is going to be good or not.”

104-year-old Lina DeBray from Langley, B.C., about 50 kilometres southeast of Vancouver, says that even as her eyesight deteriorates, she keeps up with reading and writing. She sends cards throughout the year to keep in touch with friends and family.

DeBray, who has two daughters, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, regularly plays bingo and cards. She watches Catholic mass livestreamed on TV every day. “I think my faith keeps me going,” she said.

“I keep saying to myself: God doesn’t want me now. Just give me another good day. And I pray for all my family and my friends.”

Roberts said there’s evidence that consistent sleep and staying active contribute to the longevity of super agers, but there’s one standout answer among those in the study when asked for their secret to a long life.

“We ask: what is your superpower? And just about all of them will say they are curious.”

“Now I don’t have biology to back this up, but this is what we hear. They’re lifelong learners who are engaged in a curious exploration of the world around them.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2024.

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