Boston University Researchers Hope to Unlock the Secret to Centenarians

Originally published on GBH on December 28, 2023.

The new year is just around the corner, and 2024 will likely see a growing number of Americans enter a new club: the centenarian club. Researchers at Boston University are trying to figure out what it takes to become a member.

The New England Centenarian Study is the largest study of its kind. It’s been enrolling people over 100, along with their family members, since 1995. The researchers have studied close to 4,000 participants overall, and there are currently about 1,500 enrollees who are alive and actively participating. Participants are asked to fill out comprehensive questionnaires about genealogy, medical history, lifestyle and health habits, along with regular cognitive assessments.

Resident Musia Watkin proudly displays her painting

Musia Watkin of Brookline is a member of the centenarian club. She’ll turn 101 on Jan. 1, 2024.

“I still don’t know how I got here. It’s so difficult to be able to assess how the years go, but they’ve gone and I can’t believe it,” she said.

Watkin, who is Jewish, grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, a country she describes as insular, oppressive and difficult. She moved to the US to be near her children, who attended college here. She now has 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Her energy and physical appearance belie her age. “I usually get complimented because they can’t believe that I’m 100, that I don’t look like 100. I’m also pretty mobile except for my walker,” Watkin said

She currently lives at the Goddard House in Brookline, a senior living residence. She moved there from Newton with her husband, who died in 2013 after 72 years of marriage. Still, Watkin loves living at the Goddard. She loves to paint, and purples and blues are her favorite colors. “Living at the Goddard, it opened up my mind,” she explained. “I’ve always been very curious and wanted to know why and how.”

It is that curiosity that is among the focal points of the New England Centenarian Study. Genetics are also a factor.

Dr. Thomas Perls, director and founder of the New England Centenarian Study, says they have found that genetics play an increasingly important role in getting to these extreme ages.

“I think these human models of healthy longevity will help us find drugs, and the ability to screen for health-related genes in the general population, that will help delay age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s,” Perls said.