Health & Fitness

100 years strong: Great-grandmother lives in good health for a century

AT HOME: Gladys Smithies, a Cuban-American centenarian who lives in Key Biscayne, peddles for exercise next to a family portrait taken in the 1940s. She loves to read, write letters and socialize.
AT HOME: Gladys Smithies, a Cuban-American centenarian who lives in Key Biscayne, peddles for exercise next to a family portrait taken in the 1940s. She loves to read, write letters and socialize. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Last November, Gladys Smithies celebrated her 100th birthday.

The Cuban-American centenarian calls her long life the direct result of genetic inheritance. Her grandmother and great-aunt both lived to be 102.

Another factor: Smithies, born in Santiago de Cuba, has led a “very disciplined life.”

“They made the right food. I had good sleep, [ate] right and had been in the open air a lot,” Smithies said. “It was so warm.”

She grew up at a sugar mill outside of Contramaestre in the foothills of southern Cuba, moved to New York in 1960 and moved to Miami in 1967. But beyond her good genes, Smithies has an unfaltering faith and doesn’t fret the small stuff.

When the Castro regime accused Smithies’ husband, John, of setting the sugar cane on fire in 1960 — a factor that led to their departure from Cuba — or when John became ill and died of emphysema in 1967, she was able to muster through. She retired as secretary at St. Agnes Church in Key Biscayne in 2003, working with Catholic priests for more than 20 years.

“I am religious and it helped me a lot. I had to pray for him and just go ahead and keep on going with life, keep working and being busy,” said Smithies, who lives in Key Biscayne.

Dr. Gervasio Lamas, chief of the Columbia University Division of Cardiology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, says the way Smithies accepted tragedies in her life helped her survive.

“The big things, they don’t bring her down,” Lamas said. She’s one of his oldest patients.

While Smithies chalked up her longevity to genetic makeup, a healthy lifestyle can add years to your life. Here are tips to help you live a longer, healthier life:

Stay active

“The more active you are, the more likely you are to live longer,” Lamas said. “And with physical activity, there’s less likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s.”

Even for centenarians, regular physical exercise can protect them from chronic diseases, boost endorphins and lower the chances of injury. Smithies, for example, still takes 15-minute strolls around the neighborhood with her cane and live-in companion and uses a pedal exerciser from her armchair twice a day to keep her legs circulating. When she was younger, she played tennis and golf.

According to the American Heart Association, people who are physically active and are a healthy weight live about seven years longer those who are obese and not active. A 2001 study about women who walk found that exercise isn’t just important for physical aging — it also helps your mind. Women who had a greater baseline physical activity level were also less likely to experience cognitive decline.

“One of the things I recommend to people who are interested in looking at how they can have a healthy elderly life: yoga,” Lamas said. “It’s the kind of thing that gives you strength, balance and flexibility and these are the things you need to avoid a silly fall.”

Challenge your mind

“Many diseases like heart disease and cancer have strong environmental components and strong self-help components,” Lamas said. “Intellectual activity like learning a new language or a new game appears to forestall Alzheimer’s to a certain extent.”

Smithies reads several newspapers every day. And she’s very interested in Florida politics, following Sen. Marco Rubio’s recent entry into the 2016 presidential race.

“I like [Marco Rubio] very much and I think he deserves a lot of credit,” Smithies said. “It’s going to be a very difficult choice between him and Mr. Bush.”

“Use it or lose it,” said Dr. Larry Shulruff, physician of internal medicine at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood. “If you’re not keeping your mind active, you’re not engaged.”

His suggestion: Pick up a crossword puzzle or word game.

Keep connected

“The social interaction is critical because so many people are solitary,” Shulruff said. “When you’re solitary, that sense of [lonesomeness] really affects you. It affects your motivation.”

Join a book club, play mah-jongg, go to the movies or play cards, experts say. Local senior centers often organize classes, outings and social functions.

Smithies is a mother of three, grandmother of eight, and great-grandmother of five. Although two of her children — her daughter, Dolores, and son, Michael — have died, she remains close with her third son John, who lives in Coral Gables.

“My son and my grandson visit every other day, more or less. We talk about different things that are happening in the world.”

She’s also an active letter writer, sending out between two and three letters a week with updates about herself and her family. Some are sent to friends in the U.S., while others are mailed to Europe and occasionally Cuba.

“Think of how your well-being is enhanced when you’re involved with people versus when you’re just by yourself,” Shulruff said. “It really makes a difference.”

Reduce stress and be happy

Happy people tend to live longer.

A May 2012 study from the academic journal Aging found that centenarians had lower levels of neuroticism, the tendency to experience negative emotions, and higher levels of extroversion than others.

Smithies finds happiness in her garden: She has about 20 orchids, lots of shrubbery and bushels of bougainvillea.

Additional research shows that owning a pet can lead to a longer life. A Queen’s University Belfast study confirmed that dog aficionados lead healthier lives, while another study proves that having a cat reduced stress.

Keep your body mass index less than 25

Excess weight can make certain activities, like climbing stairs or walking long distances, difficult. Centenarians tend to be lean. Obesity can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

“Since I was little, mother always gave us the right food. It was meat and carbohydrates and vegetables,” Smithies said, adding that her mother and grandmother were great cooks. “You have to eat a balanced diet. I think that has a lot to do with it.”

As an adult, rice, protein (red meat, fish or chicken) and vegetables have always been staples.

“I try not to overeat,” Smithies said. “I’ve always been more or less the same weight.”

Have good genes

“If you don’t have that genetic capacity, then what’s going to happen is going to happen,” said Shulruff of Memorial.

As people age, genes transform. The process causes general deterioration including loss of muscle mass, weakness and reduced mobility.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institutet and the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging have determined that aging isn’t just from changes in our lives, but also from our inherited genetic mutations.

“Genetic factors are supposed to count for 30 percent of your variant lifespan, and environmental factors, 70 percent,” Lamas said. “Exceptional longevity occurs kind of rarely.”

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