According to recent research, more important than either genetics or good fortune are factors completely within your control. Identifying smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and extra pounds as killers is not new — stacks of studies have done that. What is new is the growing evidence of the powerful interplay between making the right health decisions — such as waging war on your waistline and exercising — and the right emotional decisions, such as making family a priority and finding the silver lining in difficult situations.
In fact, as researchers look into which behaviors translate into happy and healthy longevity, several are proving surprisingly important:
• Active faith and a sense of purpose
• Maintaining strong relationships with family and friends
• Good coping skills or “making lemonade out of lemons”
• Life-long learning and pursuing new interests
All qualities which can be abundantly found in Buena Park resident Mary Hicks, 102. You might say her life is a primer in how to successfully move from middle-age past the century mark with joy and grace.
She doesn’t smoke, stayed slim by spending thousands of hours gardening (her collection of rose bushes and fruit trees exceeds her age), surrounds herself with family and friends, and has made her faith in God a cornerstone of her life — teaching adult Sunday School until she was almost 100. Widowed when her youngest was 9, she demonstrated she can make lemonade with the best of them as she shouldered the financial and emotional well-being of five children.
Her life has been filled with curiosity, learning and purpose: first, as a college valedictorian in 1936 — a time when very few women even attempted college — then as a 29-year-old who volunteered to serve in WWII, becoming a staff sergeant in Intelligence for the Manhattan Project, and later as a public school teacher for over three decades. An avid reader, Mary earned her master’s degree after her youngest finished high school and passed on her love of learning to her children: three of which have received their master’s or Ph.D.
After retirement, she began pursuing the hobbies and interests there hadn’t been time for: painting, traveling, and quilting (all 22 grandchildren and 61 great grandchildren have received one). For Mary, the key isn’t to fill your days, but to fill your days with the right things. Her advice to those still in the bloom of middle-age? “Put family first, push yourself to learn new things, rely on God, and use the talents and gifts He has given you to benefit those around you,” she recommends.
According to Lytton Smith, MD, a St. Jude Heritage Medical Group physician who is board-certified in geriatric medicine, recent research in aging matches his own observations; cholesterol levels and genetics play a far smaller role than attitude. "People who thrive in their later years are the ones who view each day as an opportunity — to learn, to grow, to find joy in daily life,” he explains. “Qualities such as feeling grateful for what you have instead of lamenting what you lack seem to have a very powerful effect on health and longevity.”
Bernard Swift, who just celebrated his 100th birthday, offers more evidence.
Faith? Check. He attends church and reads his Bible almost every day. Strong relationships? Check. It’s a rare day that he isn’t with at least one of his nine children, 13 grandchildren or 14 great-grandchildren. Life-long learning? He completed a Ph.D. at 74 and authored three books in his 80s.
As for focusing on the positive, his children say few do it better. “He never allows himself to get upset at the things that would irritate other people,” explains his daughter, Cathy. “He chooses to greet every day with gratefulness and contentment, regardless of any problems or difficulties.”
While Mary has watched her grandchildren and great-grandchildren treated for everything from broken bones to concussions at St. Jude Medical Center, she has rarely needed care beyond routine check-ups.
But Bernard’s care at St. Jude highlights another factor often seen in those reaching 100: expert medical services. There was a heart bypass surgery at 88, a stent placement at 91, treatment of a ministroke at 93, and management of a brain bleed after a fall at 96.
“St. Jude has all the bells and whistles, including some of the very finest doctors and the best technology. They made sure I reached 100,” explains the La Habra resident and a former vice president of personnel and labor relations. “I look forward to Heaven but am happy to have more time on this earth.”
Bernard says there are still things he wants to accomplish. “I still feel young — like I’m in my 70s. I wouldn’t trade St. Jude for all the tea in China.”