Shout in Gunnie Foerster's good ear. The right one. Can you say why you've lived so long? "No, I couldn't," she replies with a slight Norwegian accent. What advice can you give...
Shout in Gunnie Foerster’s good ear. The right one.
Can you say why you’ve lived so long?
“No, I couldn’t,” she replies with a slight Norwegian accent.
What advice can you give?
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“Live a clean life.”
Take that tip seriously.
Foerster, who lives in Shoreline, has just been recognized as one of the world’s oldest living people. Her name is now on the Worldwide Table for Living Supercentenarians.
There are 63 living supercentenarians on the list. To be accepted for this elite roster, you have to be authenticated as being at least 110 years old.
Foerster turns 111 today, making her the oldest person documented in the state.
It’s hard to believe, on first meeting.
She offers a gnarled handshake that’s surprisingly firm. Deep wrinkles wreathe a sweet smile and bright, alert eyes. She doesn’t say much. But even with failing vision and poor hearing, she plays solitaire with her daughter and tools around on her own in a wheelchair at CRISTA Nursing Center, where she lives.
Her birthday party will feature Nordiska folk dancers and fiddlers. Foerster will eat cake and wear a garland of flowers in her hair.
“We’ve been partying ever since she turned 100,” says her daughter Marilyn Carlson, who is 77 and looks at least 10 years younger.
Living to 100 used to be rare. But now ordinary centenarians can be seen on late-night talk shows, and 100th-birthday cards are stocked at the corner drugstore.
That’s why researchers are on the lookout for really, really old people. It’s estimated that as many as 250 people are alive today who have reached age 110.
Some supercentenarians make good lifestyle choices: They eat right, exercise and drink alcohol in moderation. Others soldier on despite bad habits. Typically, people who live to 100 have been independent into their 90s, dispelling the notion that aging necessarily brings progressive sickness. So supercentenarians might hold the secret to a long, healthy life.
“Our aim is not to get everyone to 110. Our aim is to get more people to live to an older age. And to compress the time that they’re sick to the very end of their lives,” says Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study.
The study, currently funded by the National Institutes of Health, is the largest comprehensive study of centenarians in the world.
The Worldwide Table of Living Supercentenarians was started six years ago by the Gerontology Research Group, a loosely organized international team of volunteer researchers who include demographers, biologists, computer scientists and dedicated amateurs.
Guinness World Records now relies on the Gerontology Research Group to validate age claims.
“Most people are not aware that there is a master list of the oldest living people in the world,” says Dr. L. Stephen Coles, a retired professor and co-founder of the Gerontology Research Group.
Still, the group receives calls every week about people who might be eligible for the supercentenarian list. The list is not complete, Coles says, and doesn’t represent all countries.
The number of supercentenarians on the list goes up and down as people age and die. But the overall number doesn’t seem to be increasing as a percentage of the population, Coles says. That means there must be a limit on how old we can live.
Gunnie Foerster ranks as 44th oldest, right after a woman from Japan, born on the same day in 1893. The five oldest people are 114. The very oldest is a woman from the Netherlands who’s lived 114 years and 181 days.
Yet, that doesn’t come close to the world’s oldest person. Jeanne Louise Calment was born in France in 1875 and died in 1997, at the age of 122.
“We do not expect anyone to break the world record of Jeanne Calment in our lifetime unless we figure out a way to deal with the aging process itself,” Coles says.
Getting on the list isn’t easy. And not just because it’s hard to stay alive for 110 years. Many people claim to be that old, but when it’s time to prove it, they can’t, or they offer documents that have been falsified.
When a claim comes into the Gerontology Research Group, it’s often turned over to senior investigator Robert Young in Atlanta. Young is a Georgia State University student who once worked for the U.S. Census Bureau and devotes much personal time to the validations.
What is acceptable verification? Proof of birth date, any name changes and current ID.
Daughter Carlson keeps Foerster’s records in a scrapbook — a baptismal certificate that states she was born in Oslo, Norway, in 1893, a ship’s manifest from her immigration to the United States and a marriage certificate.
The SS United States manifest dated Sept. 18, 1914, lists Gunhild Stenerud as a 20-year-old shopgirl who could read and write on her arrival at Ellis Island. It attests she was not a polygamist or anarchist and had $25 in her pocket.
The Gerontology Research Group last week found her name and year of birth listed in the 1900 Norway Census. It also correctly names her parents and siblings.
The Norway Census does not reveal that her family was very poor and that her mother died of tuberculosis at age 42, leaving her husband, a horse-and-buggy driver, to raise the four children.
After she immigrated to the U.S., Foerster joined her sister in Spokane. There she did housework, learned English and was named “Miss Norway.” Over the next few years, she and her sister moved back and forth between Alaska (where Foerster salted herring for a fish company) and Seattle (where she was a waitress who danced every Saturday night at the old Norway Hall).
After World War I, she married Arthur Foerster, a longshoreman. Together they raised two children in Seattle. Her husband died in 1967. She has four grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
But how did she and the world’s other supercentenarians manage to live so long? Interviews of those on the master list reveal they don’t have much in common, Coles says.
Some read the Bible, stay true to one partner and live the clean life. Others have no religion, fool around and smoke cigars.
“Mother’s right in between,” Carlson says.
One thing does come up repeatedly. Their parents and siblings also live long lives.
“So it’s in the genes. It’s inherited,” Coles says.
Coles’ group wants to set up a supercentenarian research foundation to collect DNA and tissue samples from every living person who is 110 or older for analysis.
“We believe there is a gene related to cholesterol that’s very important to heart disease,” Coles says. “We believe all the supercentenarians have a special form of that gene. And we’d like to verify that hypothesis. But that’s just for starters.”
He thinks the answers about how genes influence aging may be found in his lifetime.
For now, Coles says, the rest of us should act on what’s already known about how to age in good health: Don’t smoke. Keep weight down. Exercise the body and brain. Manage stress.
Gunnie Foerster didn’t smoke, drank only on occasion and walked a couple of miles a day into her 80s. She and her husband had many good friends. But she loved all kinds of unhealthy foods. She poured butter on her lutefisk and gravy on her mashed potatoes. And she was quite a pie maker.
Throughout her life, Foerster has been mostly healthy. When she fell and fractured her pelvis in 1999, she refused to complain, although she’s had to use a wheelchair since the accident.
Two birthdays ago, she came down with pneumonia at age 109. The doctors prescribed antibiotics, slapped on an oxygen mask and stuck IV needles in her arm. Two or three days later, she removed everything and wanted to get out of bed. It was time to celebrate her birthday.
“She will not accept being ill,” Carlson says.
Every morning by 6 in the nursing home, Foerster sits with her feet dangling off the edge of the bed, impatient to get help dressing, so she can be the first to start the day.
“Hurry up now,” she says. That’s her most common expression, along with a smile and “Thank you.”
Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or firstname.lastname@example.org