This story originally published April 12, 2014. Elizabeth Sullivan died in her sleep on Nov. 1, 2017 at 106 years old.
Former math teacher Elizabeth Sullivan will give you a hard time if you can’t quickly calculate how old she is from her birthday: March 18, 1911. But the centenarian will chuckle when she tells you the reason she’s lived 103 years.
“When I hurt my ankle and I had to go to the doctor he asked me about my food,” Sullivan said. “I said I don’t like tea or coffee, so I drink three Dr Peppers a day. He said ‘That will kill you.’ About 15 years later I had to change doctors because he died. I was still drinking three Dr Peppers a day, and I still do.”
Soft drink preferences weren’t part of t he Centenarian Population: 2007-2011, a U.S. Census Bureau report that randomly selects about 3.5 million American households each year. The report released last week puts the number of Americans who are 100 or older at about 55,000. That total is more than 70 percent higher than in the 1980s, when there were 32,194 centenarians, and it represents a 2,600 percent increase over the middle of the last century, said Dr. Robert Richard, chairman of community medicine at John Peter Smith Hospital.
“Statistics show that there were very few centenarians before 1940 — fewer than 100,” Richard said. “There were more than 2,000 in the ’50s.”
The numbers and the rate of increase continued to rise over the ensuing decades, Richard said.
“The reasons are cause for much speculation and multiple studies,” Richard said. “Conventional wisdom attributes it to improved medicine, growing wealth, vaccinations and healthier lifestyles.”
Tracking lifestyle choices can make confusing results, however, as Richard pointed out that Jeanne Calment of France — at 122 when she died in 1997, the oldest documented human in history — smoked until she was 117 and ate a couple of pounds of chocolate a week.
More than 60 percent of men and 30 percent of women centenarians in a study by Gerontologist Nir Barzilai at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine were smokers, Richard said. Half of those studied were overweight, most had very little daily physical activity, and only 2 percent were vegetarians.
“Their conclusions were that healthy lifestyles didn’t seem to be a factor in extreme longevity,” Richard said.
But the most striking result of the study was that more than 50 percent of the centenarians had first-degree relatives who lived to be very old, Richard said.
“So the strongest link they found was genetics,” Richard said.
Sullivan thought that is plausible. She remembers that her grandparents lived to be quite old, and her dad was at least 80 when he died. But the oldest relative is even closer — her brother, James Blanton Beard, who died at 102.
“I grew up on a little street right over here when Orange Street was the last street in Fort Worth and only weeds were behind it,” said Sullivan, who lives only several blocks from where she was born. “There were 15 little kids on that block, and three of us lived to be over 100.”
The third was a girl named Cecil Fox, Sullivan said.
“She drives over here and visits with me,” Sullivan said. “I went to her 100th birthday party at her church.”
Focus on education
The reasons for people living so long weren’t as important to the report’s author, statistical analyst Brian Kincel, as were their circumstances.
“I was mostly interested in the education attainment,” Kincel said. “I did research on that before and was drawn to it.”
Only 57 percent of centenarians graduated from high school, compared with 77 percent of the 40 million 65-and-older people in the census, Kincel said.
“It shows the changing expectations in the U.S. over time,” Kincel said.
Expectations may have changed, Sullivan said, but the reason behind the education gap may have more to do with the fact that 81 percent of centenarians are women.
“Education has always been important,” said Sullivan, who came from a family in which college graduation (specifically from the University of Texas) was expected of every child. “The only thing is, poor ladies of that time couldn’t go because they had so many children. You didn’t have any way to stop having babies. There just wasn’t anything they could do about it.”
Male centenarians not only were more likely than the women to have diplomas, but also more likely to be married, Kincel said.
Among the reported 44,644 centenarian women, 3 percent were married. And 23 percent of the 10,312 centenarian men were married. The female centenarians were mostly widows, 85 percent, compared with 7 percent who never married; 4 percent who were divorced; and 0.4 percent who were separated. The men were 65 percent widowers, 7 percent never married, 4 percent divorced and 0.7 percent separated.
That should send a message to centenarian men, Sullivan said.
“That tells me that if you’re a man and you’re not married, you’d better get married pretty fast,” Sullivan said.
‘One pill a day’
The married statistic didn’t surprise Dr. Janice Knebl, chief of geriatrics for the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.
“If you’re a married woman, you’re very likely going to become a widow,” Knebl said. “We tease that, if you want your husband to be with you the rest of your life, you should marry someone 10 years younger than you.”
The disparity likely is linked to dependence, said Badia Harlin, an advanced practice RN with Texas Health senior health and wellness center.
“Women tend not to get remarried once they’re in that generation,” Harlin said. “Men typically remarry after their spouses die to have someone to help them, because housework was never their role.”
Sullivan said she had a happy marriage and wishes her husband of more than 60 years, Alvin Sullivan, was still with her.
“I had no idea that I would live this long,” she said. “I figured when you’re in your 80s or 90s, you might want to go.”
But when she reached 90, Sullivan found that she was having more fun than she did before.
“I could play bridge when I wanted to, drive around when I wanted to, take trips to England or whatever I wanted to,” she said.
As her 103 birthday approached, Sullivan said she “was thinking maybe this was the year,” and “I ought to call and see if the preacher I like can do the service.”
But Sullivan’s feeling well, and her only complaint is having to walk with a cane.
“They can’t find anything wrong with me,” Sullivan said. “I’m just thankful that I don’t take but one pill a day.”
And three Dr Peppers.