As scientists pursue longevity and anti-aging research, and as more people are living to 100, we wanted to hear from a centenarian on her life experience and thoughts on aging. STAT editor Sarah Mupo spoke with 104-year-old Missouri resident Virginia Leitner. Their conversation forms the basis for this brief oral history.
When anyone meets me for the first time, they always ask me, what do you attribute your longevity to? And I always say, just don’t tell me to be good, because I want to dance and have fun.
Maybe there’s something in my genes: I’m 104 now. My mother lived to be 93, and my dad was 98. And his brothers were all up in way late in their 90s. My sister lived to be 96.
My health has always been good. I exercise every morning to help with my balance. I only take one medication, for my thyroid. The one thing I don’t like is my hearing — that’s my biggest Waterloo. I have hearing aids, and they’re wonderful, but I do have difficulty hearing. I don’t have any trouble if it’s on a one-to-one basis — I can maybe even hear without the hearing aids in those cases.
Turning 100, it didn’t make that much difference to me. It was just another birthday. Though, I don’t get around as good as I used to. I learned to drive when I was 55. I never cared much about driving, and during the Depression, my family didn’t have a car, so I didn’t pick it up at a younger age. But when my mother got sick, my husband was driving me 25 miles to her house to take care of her, and he told me it was time for me to learn.
I only have an eighth-grade education. Everything I’ve learned, I’ve gotten from books, especially self-help ones. When I want to figure out how to do something, I find a mentor or I go to the library. I learned the computer from taking a class years ago. I’ve had an iPhone for the past couple years, but I’m still having some trouble with it.
I’ve always been very good at working with my hands. My husband and I restored cars. I’ve done ceramics and china painting. I’m a self-taught painter. My favorite is watercolor, but I do oil painting and I make portraits. I also entered my artwork when I participated in the Ms. Missouri Senior America pageant in 2017. I didn’t win, but I did make 11 new friends, getting to know the contestants.
I started sewing when I was 12. My family didn’t have any money during the Depression, but I would make clothes from flour sacks. I kept making my clothes, and didn’t buy anything new until after I got married at 22.
I’ve learned over the years that you have to focus on the positives. In the building where I live I’m starting an optimist club, where people can gather to look at the bright side of life.
For scientists pursuing longevity research, I think that’s good, trying to extend life. What could be better?
Virginia Leitner, 104, lives in Saint Charles, Mo., and is a participant in the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University School of Medicine.
If you know a centenarian who would be interested in participating in an oral history, contact STAT editor Sarah Mupo at email@example.com.