Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/October 1894/Some Lessons from Centenarians

By J. M. FRENCH, M. D,

AN examination of the Massachusetts registration reports reveals some facts with reference to centennarians which are of interest, both in themselves considered and as illustrating some of the conditions favorable to great longevity.

The whole number of persons who died in Massachusetts during the ten years from 1881 to 1890, inclusive, at the age of one hundred years or over, was 203. The whole number of deaths reported during the same time was 394,484, making the proportion of centennarians one for every 1,938 of all deaths reported.

Dr. Farr, the celebrated English registrar general, in his March of an English Generation through Life, states that out of every 1,000,000 persons born in England only 223 live to the age of one hundred years. This is one in 4,484, or less than one half the proportion in Massachusetts. It must be remembered, however, that in respect to certain elements the conditions in the two cases are not parallel; inasmuch as, in the first place, the returns of deaths, especially of infants and young children, are much less complete in Massachusetts than in England; and, in the second place, a large proportion of persons of the younger ages are constantly going out from Massachusetts to settle in the newer portions of our country, leaving an abnormally large proportion of aged persons. Nevertheless, after all allowances have been made, the proportion of centennarians in Massachusetts is unexpectedly large, and leads to the belief that its climate and conditions of life are favorable to longevity.

The average age of these 203 centennarians was one hundred and two years, five months, and twenty-five days. One hundred and sixty-five were between one hundred and one hundred and five, thirty-one were from one hundred and five to one hundred and ten, seven were from one hundred and ten to one hundred and fifteen, and one was one hundred and eighteen years of age.

The next fact which claims our attention is that, of these 203 persons, 153 were females and only 50 males—that is, more than three times as many women as men reached the age of one hundred years. This proportion does not vary greatly from that which has been reported in other cases. Thus, in New York city, out of 111 persons dying at the age of ninety years or over, 77 were females and 34 males—a proportion of two and one fourth to one. The Morning Post of London has tabulated all the cases of exceptionally long life which were reported in its columns during the year 1892, and finds that the octogenarians numbered 1,151, of whom 646 were females and 545 males. Above the age of eighty the proportion of females rapidly increases, so that at the age of one hundred or over there are five times as many women as men. Dr. Farr states that of males living at twenty, one in three reaches seventy, one in eight reaches eighty, and one in seventy reaches ninety; while of females living at twenty, one in two and two fifths reaches seventy, one in six and three fourths reaches eighty, and one in forty-nine reaches ninety. Hufeland, in his Art of Prolonging Life, lays down the law that "more women than men become old, but fewer very old." The first part of this law is abundantly sustained by the results obtained in all these cases. As to the latter portion, judging from these figures, it is open to question. In Massachusetts the average age of the 50 males exceeded that of the 153 females by about nine months; but of the eight persons who were over one hundred and ten years two were males and six female—s still three to one; and the oldest of all was a female, who had attained the great age of one hundred and eighteen years. This advantage on the part of the female sex and a considerable advantage we must admit it to be, when we consider that there are nearly five per cent more males born than females, and only one third as many living at the end of a century—is probably due in part to the fact that women as a class have a more favorable environment than men, leading more quiet and regular lives, having fewer bad habits and forms of dissipation to sap their vitality, and being less exposed to death by violence and by accident; and in part to a greater endurance and tenacity of life which are inherent in the female sex.

Considering next the element of marriage, we find that 184 had been married one or more times, 14 had never been married, and concerning 5 the facts were not stated. Leaving out of account the latter class, there were thirteen times as many married as unmarried. In the absence of statistics showing the relative proportion of married and unmarried persons in the community at large, it is impossible to determine the proportion of centennarians in each class; but it may be considered as quite certain that the married reach the age of one hundred years in greater ratio than the unmarried. The average age of the married exceeded that of the unmarried by about fourteen months. This coincides with the results obtained from other sources. So far as I know, all statistics show a smaller mortality rate and a greater longevity among the married than the unmarried. Mr. Darwin urges matrimony as one of the greatest aids to long life, and calls attention to a mass of statistics gathered in France, showing that unmarried men die in far greater proportion than married. Dr. Stark says that bachelorhood ought to be classed with the most unwholesome trades, or with a residence in the most unwholesome districts, so far as danger to life is concerned; and he presents statistics showing that in Scotland the death rate of unmarried men of certain ages was 15 per 1,000 annually, while that of the married men of the same ages was less than half as great. Hufeland says that "all those people who became very old were married more than once, and generally late in life. There is not one instance of a bachelor having attained a great age." Massachusetts statistics present no instance of what may be termed remarkable age, the oldest being one hundred and eighteen, and married; nor do they show whether the individuals mentioned had been married more than once, or late in life. But it is undoubtedly true that the more regular habits and better hygiene of the married, their less degree of exposure, more abundant home comforts, better food in health and better care in sickness and approaching age, together with the moderate and restricted gratification of the sexual appetite—in short, those elements which constitute the environment of the individual—are more favorable to longevity than are the corresponding elements in the unmarried.

Whether this is true in an equal degree of both sexes, however, is more than questionable. Among the Massachusetts centennarians one in eleven of the women had never been married, while among the men the corresponding proportion was only one in twenty-three. Further than this, while there were three times as many women as men among the centennarians as a whole, there were six times as many among the unmarried ones. It would seem to be a fair inference that the effect of celibacy is less fatal to longevity among women than men. Nor is this other than might be expected, when we consider how helpless and dependent is an old man, and how unable to care for himself in the little niceties of life which contribute so largely to health and comfort, and how much less so in all these respects is an old woman.

But it would be a manifest error to conclude that, because the average age of the married exceeds that of the unmarried, therefore this excess of longevity is due to the married state, unless it can first be shown that the individuals composing the two classes were originally in the enjoyment of the same degree of health and soundness of constitution; whereas, it is an indisputable fact those persons entering the married state are, as a whole, more robust and enduring, and hence have a greater natural expectation of life, than those who remain single; and it is also evident that repeated marriages, and especially marriages late in life, are indications of a greater than usual degree of vigor and vitality. They are therefore in the nature of an effect, rather than a cause, of extreme longevity.

Coming now to the subject of nativity, we find that 85 were native-born, 115 were foreign-born, and of three the birthplace was unknown. The average age of the native-born was one hundred and two years and twenty-seven days; and of the foreign-born one hundred and two years, nine months, and eleven days. Again, statistics are lacking to determine the relative number of natives and foreigners in the State as a whole. But as it can hardly be supposed that the foreign outnumbers the native population, these figures would seem to show an advantage on the part of the foreign-born, both in average age and in proportionate number of centennarians. This may be partially explained on the ground that the immigrants who came to this country from fifty to one hundred years ago, when the country was comparatively new and unsettled, would naturally be persons of more than the average vigor and endurance. Pioneers are of necessity a hardy race. The weak and sickly remain quietly at home, while the strong and hardy venture out into a new country and new conditions.

It must not be forgotten also that there is a source of possible fallacy in the ages given. It is proverbially difficult to obtain the exact age of ignorant persons, the tendency being more and more, as years advance, to exaggerate the real age. When to this is added the element of foreign birth, rendering a reference to birth records impossible, it is easy to see that there is a great liability that the ages given by the foreigners as a class were considerably in excess of the true ages.

Among the foreign-born the Irish carry off the palm as to numbers in the list of centennarians, as they undoubtedly do in the general population, furnishing 93 out of 115. Their average age exceeds that of the natives by about eight months, while it is exceeded by the other foreigners as a class by about four months.

As to color, 197 were white, with an average age of one hundred and two years, four months, and twenty-four days; and six were colored, with an average age of one hundred and five years, three months, and twenty-four days; while three of the six colored were over one hundred and ten years of age.

Now, it is an opinion generally held, and I think capable of proof, that the death rate among these two classes, the Irish and the negroes, is much higher than that of the general population. I have not at hand statistics which will conclusively prove this fact, and will only quote the tables prepared by General Walker, based upon the United States census of 1870, in which he shows that while the Irish constituted three hundred and thirty-three per thousand of the foreign population, they contributed four hundred and ten to every thousand foreign-born decedents, thereby largely exceeding their due proportion.

If we accept the opinion alluded to as a fact, we are brought face to face with the paradoxical condition of a large proportion of persons reaching extreme longevity among classes noted for a low average longevity. How to account for this apparent anomaly is a question of interest. But one explanation suggests itself to me, and this I believe to be, in the main, the true one—namely, that the centennarians of the classes named owe their great age to favorable heredity, a natural life-force and power of endurance transmitted to them by their ancestors, which enabled them to withstand or overcome the unfavorable environment which carried off a large proportion of their respective races; while, on the other hand, the admittedly higher average longevity of the native whites is to be accounted for by their more favorable surroundings and mode of life, better hygiene in health and care when sick, whereby the vitality of the weak, the sickly, and the young is conserved, and many years of life are added to the average. If this explanation be accepted as the correct one, it suggests the law, which is also warranted by a wider observation, that extreme individual longevity depends chiefly upon favorable heredity, while a high average longevity is promoted mainly by a favorable environment.

As the result of his studies of the native calendar of Central America and New Mexico, with special reference to linguistics and symbolism, Dr. D. G. Brinton believes that the system of the peoples to whom it appertained was in a certain sense philosophic; that it grew out of ripe meditation on the agencies which direct and govern life; and that it was merely veiled not smothered in the symbolism which has been transmitted to us, and which they found it convenient to throw around it, in presenting it to the unlearned. The twenty potencies or agencies, fixed at that number for a reason which the author determines, follow each other in the sequence in which they were believed to exert their influence on the life or existence, not of man only, but of things and of the universe itself. This opinion exerted a strong constructive and directive influence on the national myths, rites, and symbolism, extending to architecture and ornament, to details of government, and to the every-day incidents and customs of national and domestic life. In all of these we perceive a constant recurrence of the signs and their correspondent numbers, drawn from the composite relations of twenty to thirteen.