A Centenarian's Secrets for Longevity

Howard W. Jones, Jr., M.D.
garcianw@evms.edu

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All centenarians are special, but men are extra special. We comprise a mere 15 percent of the 76,490 100-plus-year-olds in America, and those statistics makes the elders of our gender a particularly rare and precious commodity. As one of the few men to have celebrated a 100th birthday, I think I know a thing or two about aging, or shall I say aging gracefully.

The scientific studies—and there have been plenty—have yielded few conclusive findings, if any. Most of the books about living to a ripe old age, are written by youngsters (the under-100 set) who have interviewed us. That is why I feel it is important to take this opportunity to review the mysteries of aging. 

There are really three secrets. The first concerns the consequence of the fate over which the individual has no control, i.e., the chance persona; the second relates to the public or outside persona; and the third relates to the private or inside persona.

CHANCE PERSONA

You cannot control your genes, your parents, or your home environment.

First, I am the result of a tremendous shuffling of genetic material, which included some 3 billion potential variables. I got lucky. My combination seems to confer longevity.

Second, my parents were terrific role models. My father was a successful general practitioner. His office was in our home. I couldn’t wait to get into the office after all the patients left to follow him around as he did the laboratory work for the patients he had just seen.  I went with him on house calls and when he made rounds at the hospital.  I never had any other notion but that I was going to be a doctor, just like my father.  I think I had the advantage of certainty, compared with so many young students today who go through college without direction. I never had the slightest doubt. My mother only had a high school education, but she pushed me to have the best possible education.  While our house was just on the city side of the line dividing the country and the city, she was insistent that I not go to the city public schools.  I, therefore, went to the country public school, which required me to carry a tuition envelope every semester while I was there.  She insisted I transfer to private school after my father died. I was 13. I believe her decisions in my early years were critical to my later acceptances at Amherst College and then Johns Hopkins Medical School.

Third, my parents created a nurturing and educational home. Parents are the most important teachers.  My parents taught me to respect older people and to learn from listening. It’s something that was in vogue, then, but now long gone. The notion was, and it seems old-fashioned now, that children are to be seen and not heard.  The acquisition of this trait was important, as many older people opened doors that made a difference.

THE PUBLIC PERSONA

My public life—that is my life as a physician—was always interesting, intellectually rewarding, and at no time a cause for strife and/or anxiety—certainly a formula for living a long time. 

Medical school was exciting. Learning was a pleasure, and early on I was particularly fascinated by the physiology of reproduction.  The content of this part of the curriculum seemed easy and extra reading was a pleasure.  It happened that this attitude was aided and abetted by the fact that there was a female medical student in the class one year behind me who seemed to have similar interests.  It was also facilitated by the fact that at Johns Hopkins in that era there were no tests, no examinations, and no marks for the first two years.  Thus, students in both the first and the second year could study together because no examinations were held until the end of the second year on all subjects in the first two years.  Thus, studying with Georgeanna Seegar was educational as well as romantic.

The first door that was opened by an older person was the opportunity to fill a position on the residency staff at Hopkins in gynecology.  I was advised by one of the faculty who volunteered the notion that I should do this and gave me tips on how to accomplish it. 

During my early years on the faculty in gynecology at Johns Hopkins, I was given the opportunity to become a surgeon. This door was really opened by Dr.  Richard TeLinde, the chairman of the department of gynecology, who suggested to Dr. Lawson Wilkins, a pediatrician, that I should train to operate on his young patients who had undifferentiated genitalia. Thus, began a career of challenging opportunities to reconstruct reproductive organs in patients who had been considered incurable.

With the understanding of the pathogenesis and the successful treatment of that aspect of disorders of sexual differentiation, it became extremely important for the genitalia to be functionally and cosmetically similar to the sex in which the individual was reared.  This led to a series of publications and a book on this particular problem, all of these being unique in the field.  I cite this as an example of how older people made it possible for a younger person to enter a new field and develop techniques and therapies previously not described.

Other open doors of this kind could be mentioned, but as one grew older the doors that were opened were not by older people but by contemporaries.  However, I became indoctrinated in the system of walking through all open doors. Thus, when a younger person asked whether in vitro fertilization could be carried out in Norfolk, Virginia, I answered, yes, immediately. I had not worked out the details, but knew that somehow it would all work out. The process was not yet apparent, but I would not miss the opportunity. I was eager and ready to work hard.

While access to open doors is wonderful, I was able to walk through them with my favorite medical student who would one day become my wife and lifelong colleague. We had an exciting and intellectually rewarding public career, which had few anxieties—certainly a formula for a long life.

During our decade in reproductive medicine, our  focus evolved along with the changing nature of the field. We forged into new territory and constantly challenged ourselves. I believe that as we switched our focus, we continued to kindle our intellectual spark, another secret to longevity. There is a practical point.  Retirement at age 65 is not, repeat not, consistent with longevity.  Please note that gainful employment should not be related to retirement.  The simple message for longevity: do not retire from intellectual pursuits.

PRIVATE PERSONA

There is not a sharp division between private and public lives and yet one’s private life concerns home life, children, education, their future, non-professional activities, vacations, and all the rest.  I can only say that this too was a happy and rewarding part of existence.  No strife, no problems that could not be solved in some reasonable way.  All of this enhanced by children who individually have been successful in education and life, have had families of their own whose futures seem to be sure if not clearly defined, but on the track of contentment and service.

COMMENT

The secret of longevity is unique, that is, one person’s secret is not another’s.  It goes with the genetic, the public and the private personae, the family, and all those influences that make an individual an individual.   Thus, my secret does not apply to anyone else.  However, perhaps there are themes of general applicability.  For me the secrets were the right genes, an exciting and interesting profession, and a serene family life.  For me, this mix allowed longevity.

About the Author

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    Dr. Jones is a Professor Emeritus of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Eastern Virginia Medical School and Chairman of the Board (Honorary) of the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine.    
    Dr. Jones continues to hold key positions in the development of ethical standards for reproductive technologies. He is a Past Chairman of the American Fertility Society Ethics Committee on Reproductive Technology. He is widely known as the doctor who helped to create America’s first test-tube baby.

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    Published: March 13, 2011