Discovering the secret to living longer

Companionship, intellectual stimulation, exercise, clean diet are the principles many locals live by


Oak Hammock at the University of Florida resident Alvin Warnick, 92, works out at the complex's fitness center. Warnick, a retired UF animal sciences professor, works out five days a week for about an hour and 15 minutes.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 11:27 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 11:27 a.m.

When Alvin Warnick works out in the morning, his chin is tucked in his chest, as if he is peering into a microscope.

And for 37 years, that's exactly what the retired University of Florida professor of small animal sciences did.

Now, at age 92, Warnick's "hang-dog look," he said, is the only health problem he claims — and his daily workout regime is one of the things that is keeping him young at heart — literally.

Dressed in a Gator's volleyball T-shirt, basketball shorts and tennis shoes, Warnick maintains a steady 1½-hour exercise routine five days a week: 15 minutes on the treadmill and bike each, and eight on the elliptical, followed by weights to work his upper and lower body.

"You have to be self-disciplined to do what's good for you," Warnick said.

Warnick is known as the "unofficial mayor" of Oak Hammock, an upscale community of retirees in southwest Gainesville that is affiliated with the University of Florida. People from their mid-60s through age 97 live here, with about 30 people over age 90.

Across town, at Turkey Creek Forest, the elderly live independently in a community of cozy ranch homes tucked into grounds that resemble lush campgrounds. Here, there are also 30 people who are 90 and older.

We talked to several people in these communities and elsewhere who are living healthy, happy lives into their 80s and 90s, to find out their secrets of longevity. Many people said, "Good genes," citing parents who had lived just as long. And according to Marco Pahor, the director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida, "Genes are critical." But so are certain behaviors, environmental and lifestyle factors that these successful seniors shared.

Our investigation was inspired by the "Blue Zones Project," in which researchers identified a handful of communities in the world with a disproportionately large number of centenarians: people who were living healthily, and happily, into their 100s. Five communities--in Japan, Greece, Italy, Costa Rica and California made the cut. Their inhabitants lived an average of 10 years longer than Americans and generally were without chronic diseases.

The researchers then honed in on principles that these disparate places shared. Called the "Power 9," these include things such as putting your loved ones first, choosing your friends wisely, and eating a primarily plant-based diet (which includes a glass of wine a day).

We found that locally, some of our most senior citizens live by many similar principles. We categorized five: companionship, socialization, intellectual stimulation, exercise and diet, and fun.

Companionship and the power of love

Rufus and Marion Broadaway, both 92, are one of four couples in their 90s who live in their own home in the Oak Hammock community. Rufus credits his good health, in part, to having been a distance runner for several years, a habit he started shortly after he began practicing surgery and needed to do something to offset his long, intense work schedule. He sports New Balance running shoes and still works out three times a week at the gym.

Marion said she's always eaten a lot of fruits and vegetables because her mother was a home economics teacher and taught her to do so. The couple still eats lightly during the day: cereal and coffee for breakfast, several pieces of fruit and toast for lunch.

"And a cookie for dessert," they both said — in unison.

And their real secret is in fact, each other.

"We've been married for 70 years, going on 71," Rufus said. "And quite frankly, we're still in love."

"If you're not happy, you're not going to live long — certainly not happily," Marion added.

Theirs is something of a storybook romance: Marion, a native Bostonian, moved South for college. "Like all 15-year-olds, I wanted to travel. In 1938, we were just entranced with the South," Marion said, her New England accent still demarcating her speech.

She came to a girls' college near Jackson, Miss., Rufus' hometown, and they met at a student meeting (he was attending a nearby boys' college).

"The moment I heard her speak and saw her, I was gone," Rufus said.

World War II separated the two for five years — Rufus recalls parachuting into Normandy on D-Day.

When Rufus returned to the U.S., he and Marion married, and Rufus enrolled in Harvard Medical School — where Marion had taken him for an interview just before he left for the war.

They moved South, to Miami, where Rufus was one of the founders of the University of Miami Medical School and developed a distinguished career. Marion raised their son and daughter.

Like the Broadaways, many interviewees cited the importance of companionship to their health — provided by a spouse, other family members or close friends, or a pet. "The most important decision you ever make is the mate you choose," Warnick said. "I was very lucky to choose the right mate."

Warnick met his wife, Barbara, when they were both graduate students in Wisconsin. She died of cancer in 2004, and a year later Warnick moved into Oak Hammock.

They had three children, and between the kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, Warnick recently hosted a family reunion with 27 people.

Warnick also still has a brother who is 96. "We're having a contest about who will go next."

For Babs Dalsheimer of Turkey Creek Forest, companionship was until very recently, a private matter. At her 85th birthday party on Jan. 15, she introduced her beloved companion of 54 years, Evelina.

"She's the sweet, smart one," Dalsheimer said. Evelina was a home economics teacher. Dalsheimer taught PE.

"We had something to talk about when we came home," Dalsheimer said, at their tidy home on a street called Magnolia.

"I taught her how to exercise, and she taught me how to eat," Dalsheimer said.

The two stayed healthy by hiking in the mountains of North Carolina every summer, where they owned a home; Dalsheimer was for many years a distance runner, recently turned pickleball player.

And between the two, they have a lot of students they consider their children and friends — many of them among the 150 people at Dalsheimer's recent birthday party.

"If you don't have a family of friends, you're really missing the boat," Dalsheimer said.

Ask Elizabeth Wing, 80, what keeps her going, and she looks at Abby, the 90-pound Anatolian Shepherd at her feet. "I think she has a lot to do with it," Wing said. "If you're by yourself, she's another heart beating in the house."

Walking Abby at Oak Hammock's dog park is Wing's first order of business in the morning.

"Then we come home for break-y," Wing said. And then, the partially retired ethno-biologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History does some research. She'll walk Abby twice more — at 11 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. — through the meadow at Oak Hammock.

"I wouldn't have come [to Oak Hammock] if she couldn't have come," Wing said.

Socialization and choosing the "right tribe"

One of the Blue Zones principles is belonging to the "right tribe." According to its website, "The world's longest-living people are either born into or choose to create social circles that support healthy behaviors."

As Amy Tomczyk with Blue Zones, explained, Blue Zones are "very often 3 and 4 generations of people living together, or at least living nearby where they go and check on each other often."

"Beyond family, who are you spending your time with?" Tomczyk continued. "Are they happy, lonely? All of those behaviors are just as contagious as an illness because we tend to mimic our friends."

At Oak Hammock, the tribe is decidedly elite: well-educated and well-traveled, it counts many retired doctors, lawyers, professors and engineers in its quarters.

"It's not a random sampling of the population," Warnick said.

But residents generally dispense with their professional titles here, engaging in the present as eagerly as school children.

Rufus Broadaway wears a badge on his navy blue polo shirt that says "Founders Club Member," as designation for people who moved into Oak Hammock within a few years of its opening in 2004.

Many residents attend classes at the Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR) on topics ranging from "Fifteenth Century Architecture" to "The Rise of the Nation-States in Europe."

"I never expected this portion of my life to be so full. If that weren't the case I might miss my job," said Marvin Berk, 84, a retired radiologist. Berk started an opera class at the ILR.

Oak Hammock also has a dining hall where many residents have dinner and socialize. "You just go and sit with people. People join each other all the time," Berk's wife, Helen added.

"There's never a time that you are alone," Warnick said, adding that he thinks choosing the right friends has been key to his happiness, which in turn has influenced his healthy longevity.

"Choose friends who you enjoy being around so you are on the positive and happy side of life," Warnick said. "We were sent to this earth for happiness, not sadness. Anything you can do to improve your happiness and mental state is a plus, plus, plus."

Apart from socializing in person, many seniors are social media savvy. Ruth Eckhoff, 90, keeps track of her seven grandkids on Facebook.

"That way I can snoop."

Intellectual stimulation: keeping the mind at work

Eckhoff is a busy woman: She plays scrabble once a week for a couple of hours. She also plays Mah-jong and cards and sits on the social and architectural committees at Turkey Creek Forest. Once a week she paints watercolors with a group in West Side Park.

She is also one of Turkey Creek Forest's longest-standing members. She retired here with her husband in the 1980s from New Hampshire to be closer to their daughter, who now lives in the community. "This was a community of people in their 60s," she said. Today Turkey Creek has 30 people over age 90, and about half of its 400 homes are occupied by people over 80.

"I've aged with the community," Eckhoff said.

Shirley Bloodworth, another resident of Turkey Creek Forest, also sits on various committees in Gainesville. A registered nurse by training, she started the PrimeTime Institute at Santa Fe College and has worked as a consultant on aging and end-of-life issues. She has retired three times.

"I learned you're never too old to be downsized," Bloodworth quipped.

Many people counted finding joy in their professions, and their ability to maintain a high level of stimulation as key to their happiness as they age.

"When you retire, your brain will turn to mush. You have to challenge it in other ways," Bloodworth added.

For people living at Oak Hammock, the ILR classes provide that opportunity under one roof.

Other people strike out on their own to find what works. Peggy Forgnone, a pharmacist who retired at age 76, now spends several hours a week quilting. Her mother and grandmother quilted, so she came to the practice naturally.

"It's very relaxing, and it doesn't take any concentration," Forgnone said. But it is labor-intensive, and she often works on her many quilts while she's cooking. "You can get a lot of stitches in 15 to 20 minutes."

Forgnone is in several quilting bees, including the "Civil War Bee," where she is helping reproduce a quilt made during the Civil War. She's been working on it since 2004, and has 30 pieces yet to go.

"This is not a quilt in a day," she said. "I had more spare time when I worked full time than I do now."

Likewise, Alvin Warnick's roster of activities reads like someone in mid-life rather than retirement: He's in the Athenaeum Society, Kiwanas and attends weekly lectures at the medical school as a retired UF faculty member. He also writes for Florida Cattle History and just finished a history of one of the ranches in South Florida.

Plus, he reads — the local paper "cover to cover" at five every day and then his favorite publications.

"I love Reader's Digest and have been taking National Geographic for 60 or 70 years," he said.

Eating well...and exercising enough

To eat healthily and exercise is now a mantra for people of all ages. But when many of the seniors we talked to were growing up, there were few vegetarians, not to mention vegans, and gym memberships were virtually unheard of.

But many people naturally had active lifestyles or professions: Helen Berk, Bette Archard and Babs Dalsheimer taught PE, and Ruth Eckhoff and her husband ran a resort in the Northeast, where she ran the restaurant.

The work kept Eckhoff on her toes, and also instilled her life-long love of cooking and eating well. She still makes dinner every night — often in the crockpot, but she boasted of the pork, onions and potatoes she made one night recently. And fresh or steamed vegetables figure often in her meals.

"I never did these things because I wanted to live long. I just love eating," Eckhoff said.

For breakfast, she has whole grain cereal with a banana or berries, and she drinks one cup of coffee a day. Lunch is soup and half a sandwich — usually tuna, egg salad, or grilled cheese and tomato — or the whole sandwich with "something crunchy," she said, like Cheetos.

At 5 o'clock in the afternoon she has a glass of Chablis. "Wine time," she calls it, which correlates precisely with one of the "Power 9" principles in the Blue Zones Project: "Wine @ 5." The researchers found that all people in the five blue zone areas drank moderate amounts of alcohol regularly. According to the Blue Zones website, "The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day, with friends and/or with food."

Bette Archard also has half a glass of wine at 5, with a handful of nuts. Archard eats a healthy diet: Cheerios in the morning, fruit and yogurt, or cottage cheese at lunch, and a lot of vegetables and fish. She likes the entrée salad with salmon at the Oak Hammock dining hall.

But she doesn't deny herself ice cream, and sometimes a pint of her favorite flavor is her lunch. For years, that was Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia. "Now I'm branching out — pistachio, Belgian chocolate," she said.

Archard can get away with it — and still maintain a lithe figure — because being physically active has been a long-standing part of her life. The former PE teacher retired to run a children's camp with her husband in Maine. Now she does water aerobics three times a week and walks her poodle, Gigi, several times a day.

That provides her with the "moving natural" principle in the Blue Zones' "Power 9."

"What we've learned is that they don't run marathons, but are moving throughout the day," Amy Tomczyk of Blue Zones said. "This has such an impact on your metabolic system."

Marvin and Helen Berk are the poster couple of Oak Hammock for healthful living. A photo of them decked out in tennis attire by the courts appears on the brochure. Both are in their early 80s, but they look a decade younger, largely owing to the few games of tennis they play each week.

Helen Berk, like Bette Archard, was a PE teacher, and then started playing tennis regularly when her youngest son was in kindergarten.

"With four boys we did a lot of camping," Helen said. "We still like to take walks and be outdoors."

"We are more active now than in our first 10 years of retirement," Marvin added.

Like Archard, the Berks eat moderately but enjoyably: a few glasses of wine each week; cereal and coffee in the morning, and one glass of orange juice between them.

"We try not to eat a lot of carbs — pasta, bread — but we're not real strict about it," Helen said. They can also afford an occasional indulgence, with ice cream in the freezer and chocolates on hand.

"I do like my sweets," Helen said.

Finding fun in aging

Shirley Bloodworth, 83, lives according to what she calls her "5 G mantra": glad to be here; good-natured; generous; genuine and slightly goofy.

"They teach me not to take myself too seriously," she said. "You have to release yourself."

After Bloodworth's husband died five years ago, she turned to travel.

She's walked on a glacier in Alaska and is getting ready for a monthlong cruise in the East, and hot air ballooning over Lake Victoria in Africa. "I'm afraid of heights, but I've already paid for it, so I'm going," she said.

Bloodworth believes her irreverent, forward-motion attitude helps keep her alive and young.

"I don't sit around and talk about what used to be. That's a real killer."

Ruth Eckhoff, too, found ways to move on after losing her husband 23 ago. "I've kind of come into my own," she said. "The first big decision I made was to buy a new car in 1992." She still drives that car — to her painting class. Watercolor painting is a talent she's developed in her later years.

For Alvin Warnick, "looking on the bright side" is key to his happiness and longevity. Like many of the people interviewed, he lost a spouse, but learned how to heal from loss and find enjoyment in the things he's always found fun.

"I still go to all the football games. I have the same seats I've had since 1964," he said.

Bette Archard and her husband used to do ballroom dancing four times a week. She still loves music and keeps it on often in her apartment.

"It keeps me company. Sometimes I dance to it," she said.

And while Archard loves the company of people in the dining hall, she's not afraid to eat alone, or in the company of her dog Gigi.

"I get take-out and Gigi and I watch the Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy."

Part of enjoying life, for many of these successful seniors, is not dwelling on death.

"I'm not afraid of dying," Eckhoff said.

"You don't want to live forever, but you don't want to think about not being here."

Marvin and Helen Berk, too, live with an awareness of death without obsessing over it.

"You don't know what's around the corner, but our attitude is to enjoy life," Helen said.

Marvin added, "We are appreciative of our opportunities and aware of the fact that all of this doesn't go on forever."

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119, or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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