What's the secret to living to be almost 115?
"I don't have a secret," says Susannah Mushatt Jones, 114, her head tied in a yellow scarf for warmth, and her body wrapped in a pink and green blanket. Then she adds: "Believe in the Lord."
It's a few weeks before her 115th birthday, on July 6, and Jones is spending time with family in her Brooklyn, New York, living room. Jones is the second-oldest American, according to the roster of supercentenarians validated by the Gerontology Research Group, and her niece, Lois Judge, 74, is trying to remind her of that fact. (Update: On July 4, the Gerontology Research Group confirmed that Gertrude Weaver is the oldest American at 116 years old, now making Jones the third-oldest American.)
"I'll be 115? I ain't gonna be 115," says Jones. "Nope." Frankly, her family can't believe it either, though Jones is doing remarkably well. She never drank or smoked, and to this day she sleeps like a champion—upwards of 10 hours a night. And while it's impossible to isolate one thing that can explain any supercentenarian's longevity, Jones seems to have made some interesting choices along the way.
For starters, she loves bacon. Every morning she eats four strips of it, followed by scrambled eggs and grits. "Sometimes, she'll take the last strip, fold it in a napkin, put it in her pocket and save it for later," says her niece Selbra Mushatt, 70. She also seems to be a minimalist when it comes to interfering with her health. The only medication she takes is a multivitamin and a pill for her blood pressure. Blind from glaucoma since she was 100, Jones refused cataract surgery, and her nieces say Jones has never had a colonoscopy or a mammogram. Lavilla Watson, 82, another one of her nieces, said a doctor recommended a pacemaker, but she refused. She sees a primary care physician every three to four months.
The third oldest of 11 siblings, Jones was born and raised in Lowndes County, Alabama, about an hour southwest of Montgomery. In 1922, she completed high school, and the graduation roster recognizes her for studying "Negro Music in France." She always wanted to be a teacher and was accepted to the Tuskegee Institute's teacher training program, but could not afford to go.
A year later, she moved to New York City and worked as a child care professional for wealthy families. She was married briefly to a man named Henry Jones and didn't have children, so she has always called the kids she cared for "her children." Photos of them all grown up with their own kids are propped up on a coffee table next to her in the living room.
She used her salary to help send her nieces to college and fund a college scholarship program that she established for African-American students called The Calhoun Club. She was generous with her family, but when it came to splurging on herself, Jones's weakness was, of all things, high-end lace lingerie. "She would save her money and then go to Bloomingdale's,'" says her niece Selbra Mushatt. "One time, when she had to get an EKG, the doctors and nurses were surprised to see her wearing that lingerie, and she said, 'Oh sure, you can never get too old to wear fancy stuff.'"
After retiring in 1965, she lived with her niece Lavilla Watson, who remembers coming home to find Jones cracking up at I Love Lucy while cradling Watson's newborn son in a rocking chair.
Life at 115
The world's oldest person, 116-year-old Misao Okawa of Osaka, Japan, says the answer to a long life is eating sushi, while the oldest American, 115-year-old Jeralean Talley of Michigan, says it's pigs' feet. Some studies argue that long life has to do with being a conscientious, giving and most importantly, happy person. Other research says that strong personal connections play a big role, which may in part explain Jones's long life.
She was active in her neighborhood for nearly 30 years, serving on its tenant patrol team, and these days, her nieces visit almost daily. Sunday evenings, they all gather together for a BBQ feast.
Becoming a supercentenarian likely has to do with genes, says Thomas Perls, a professor of medicine and the director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston Medical Center, the largest study of centenarians and their families worldwide. "You have to have some relatively rare combinations of a whole bunch of genes, probably hundreds, that will help people age more slowly or protect people from age-related diseases [dementia, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer]," he says. "The super-centenarians, they not only delay disability toward the very end of their lives but also diseases. In fact, they’re often functionally independent and disease-free, except for some things you can’t get away with like cataracts and osteoarthritis."
He estimates the prevalence of centenarians in the U.S. population is about 1 per 5,000, 1 per 5 million for super-centenarians, and thus 1 per about 100 million for people over 114. And most are female. "Why women do this better than men is really unclear in terms of what genetic advantages they have versus men," he says, "but one possibility is that many of the genetic variants of interest that may be slowing aging and decreasing the risk for age-related disease could be on the X chromosome. And women have two of those, men just have one."
A life that lasts 115 years is, by all measures, an extraordinary thing. But the gift of time comes with the very human fear of loss, compounded perhaps by the extra years. Reflecting on the significance of her aunt's upcoming birthday in a phone conversation, her niece Lavilla Watson says, "I’m very emotional about it. It makes me sad. Now that she’s going to be 115, they don’t live that long after that, you know?"
Then again, this birthday also feels like a thrill. "Listen," says Judge. "Who knows anyone who is 115? That's excitement in itself."