Glen Yarger (center) celebrates 106 years of life with his friends at Regency Retirement Residence of Boone. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Iowa’s rural centenarians help unlock the secrets to aging well

A team of College of Human Sciences researchers are peering into the secrets of living and aging well. By studying lives well-lived, they’re addressing global challenges affecting people’s health.

“We focus considerable attention on whole-person wellness,” said Jennifer Margrett, an associate professor in human development and family studies and director of Iowa State’s interdepartmental gerontology program. “Wellness is about more than one area of functioning such as physical health or cognition. It’s thinking about social support and interaction, about supporting optimal aging in all of its aspects.”

As part of this holistic focus on wellness, the exceptional longevity lab led by University Professor Peter Martin studies centenarians — those who have reached their 100th birthday. Martin’s study of exceptional longevity in rural environments will include a parallel study from Osaka, Japan.

“You don’t see grumpy 100-year-olds,” said Peggy Lockhart, a graduate research assistant and doctoral student who works in Martin’s lab. “They’re resilient; their outlook is positive. I can’t remember any of them telling me it wasn’t good to be alive.”

Unlocking this outlook on life is key to supporting all Iowans, especially the state’s oldest residents. The Iowa Department on Aging predicts that by 2050, the number of Iowans over age 65 will increase to 683,251 — a 39 percent increase over 2015.

Nationwide, Iowa had the fifth-largest share of the population that was 65 and over in 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

“Looking at the quality of life among those who are 100 is very important to us,” Martin said. “There are implications for the entire aging process if we can learn something from those who are enjoying themselves at 100.”

1934 Glen Yarger
Glen Yarger in the 1934 Bomb yearbook. Photo courtesy University Archives.

Glen Yarger is one of those people. The former Cyclone wrestler — proud of his alma mater and his 1934 Big Six championship win under coach Hugo “Oto” Otopalik — greets visitors to Regency Retirement Residence of Boone with a warm smile and a firm handshake.

“I enjoy being with my friends,” he said. “Moving here is the best thing that ever happened.”

Martin said that Yarger’s positive outlook on life is common among today’s centenarians.

“An overwhelming majority of the centenarians we talk to feel positive,” Martin said. “There are certainly health and medical limitations of being 100, but there are 100 years of experiences that they love to talk about. Their robust, vibrant personalities are contagious.”

Gathering the research uncovers story after story — and provides insights into aging well.

“The centenarians we’ve spoken with are happy because they know what to focus on,” Martin said. “The answer to the question of what is important in life often comes more easily when we’re together with older people because they’ve learned how to adapt to life’s challenges.”

Margrett has witnessed this interaction firsthand in her GERON 510 course, — a seminar attended by first-year students, 80-year-olds, and everyone in between — and LIFE, an extension program led by younger adults that offers low-cost, physical activity programming to older adults.

“We know that for most people of high school or college age, there’s a value to interacting with older people,” Margrett said. “They show a benefit in terms of their own expectations for aging, and lower ageism. Having meaningful intergenerational contact is really important in addressing aging from both personal and societal perspectives.”