Iowa State Gerontology Program conducting three-year study on Iowa centenarians

AMES, Iowa -- An Iowa State University research team is studying Iowa centenarians to learn their secrets of longevity and the quality-of-life obstacles they encounter.

Researchers from ISU's Gerontology Program began the three-year initiative last year, funded by the College of Human Sciences Entrepreneurial Initiative. Peter Martin, director of Iowa State's Gerontology Program and principal investigator for the project, reports that centenarians are the fastest-growing population in the United States, and Iowa has the country's second-highest proportion of centenarians with 950.

"We have more than 75,000 people in this country who are centenarians now. Just 10 years ago it was about 40,000. So there's tremendous growth," said Martin, an ISU professor of human development and family studies who has conducted research on centenarians for 20 years. "By the year 2050, it is projected that there will be more than 830,000 people in this country who will be 100, a time when the boomers will basically be joining the ranks."

136 centenarians surveyed last year

The ISU researchers spent the last year surveying 136 Iowa centenarians (87.5 percent women, 12.5 percent men) in phase one of the study. They compiled a report summarizing their data titled "Exceptional Longevity: Preliminary Analysis" which Martin presented this month to the members of ISU Extension who came to Iowa State for in-service training.

"This is the first assessment that we had and what we're looking at is their strengths and weaknesses -- areas where they are vulnerable and areas where they have considerable strengths," Martin said. "In terms of weak and vulnerable areas for this group, it's clear that memory deficits do become apparent as people get into their 90s and over 100.

"Another area that we focus on is fatigue areas, and also the loss of social contacts," he said. "So even though it's glamorous to be 100, it's not easy to be 100."

Yet Iowa centenarians report that they are in relatively good health in the ISU study. Just nine percent rated their health as "poor." Nearly half (48 percent) rated their health as "good," while another 21 percent rated it as "excellent."

The ISU researchers are comparing their results with other regions of the country, along with European and Asian nations. Martin conducted a previous study on centenarians in the state of Georgia and says members of that age group share certain key personality traits.

"We keep being amazed by their personalities, and they're very laid back and relaxed individuals -- in ways that we can sometimes only dream of, being the busy people that we are," he said. "That's been true in other studies too that they're very relaxed individuals with high scores of agreeableness.

"And even though their friends are all gone, there's a tremendous amount of help that we find centenarians having," said Martin. "They report to us that there's plenty of help, which leads us to conclude that, in many ways, you can't get there alone. You do need others, whether it's the adult children, the other family members, the community, or the staff of the nursing home."

Iowa centenarians more depressed

Martin says that the team's preliminary analysis has found Iowa centenarians to have more depressive symptoms than those he studied in Georgia.

"It's (depression) very predominate and at a very high rate of depressive symptoms," he said. "We still don't know why, but it may just be personality. We talk about this sort of Scandinavian influence we all have here -- this hard-working, serious, maybe introverted person in the upper-Midwest, not just Iowa. The farmer image of 'I can take care of my own.' In Georgia, there's more of this social, gregarious image -- where people get more in touch. So it may be a regional difference."

The second phase of the project is assessing both the cognitive functioning and physical activity of roughly 20 centenarians from the sample. In addition to self-reports, the team will use hand-grip devices and motion-sensing armbands in order to measure strength and activity at four times during the year. Cognitive functioning also will periodically be evaluated by tests of memory, verbal ability, and reasoning.

A decline in memory recall -- especially the potential onset of Alzheimer's disease -- is the chief concern among older adults, according to Martin.

"They'll do with less money. They'll even deal with the loss of a friend," he said. "But if you ask them what the biggest fear is that they have, they'll say, 'I can't remember things anymore, I can't recognize people anymore, I don't want to get Alzheimer's disease, etc.'"

The researchers plan to complete phase two this summer. The final phase will apply what they've learned to improve centenarians' lives through technology by development of smart home applications. Martin says that continued financial support will allow for collaboration with the ISU Department of Computer Science on the development of smart home technology.