Originally created 09/25/00

Genes get credit for longevity



Elizabeth Tuttle sits in a chair next to an antique stand with shelves covered by pairs of small glass and porcelain shoes.

Like them, she doesn't seem to have been touched by time, even though she just turned 99. Mrs. Tuttle, who lives at an area assisted living center, doesn't give a thought to next year's potential milestone, reveling instead to taking care of her daily tasks and taking a rainy afternoon to spin stories about growing up in Wisconsin.

She is part of a national trend - those age 90 and older are among the fastest growing segments of the population. And she is on the verge of joining another booming group, those age 100 and older. But it hardly crosses her mind.

"I don't really think about it," she said. "I'm just surprised" to have made it.

The number of Americans ages 95 to 99 will nearly double in 15 years, from an estimated 364,000 this year to a projected 678,000 in 2015, according to Census Bureau figures; those 100 and older will nearly triple, from 65,000 to 177,000.

The elderly in America are increasing for a number of reasons, said Greg Spencer, who heads the population projections branch for the Census Bureau. Some of it is just sheer numbers.

"Births increased steadily all through the first part of the century," Dr. Spencer said. Immigration also added to the numbers, and mortality has been steadily decreasing with the advancement of health care, he said.

Mrs. Tuttle can look to her family for her longevity - her father made it to 93.

"When he turned 90, I had a birthday party for him and there were three brothers older than him (at the party)," she said. She remembers seeing a photo of an aunt who was 102 years old, she said.

"I think it's in your genes," she said.

Those genes have served her well, because she doesn't appear to be much older than 70, if that.

As rain splashes down outside her window, she can easily recall a much different world in Oshkosh, Wis.

"I went from washing this way," she said, elbows out, hands pushing an imaginary shirt down a washboard into a tub, "to a washing machine." As a girl in the dawn of the century, she recalls the Sundays when families went house to house visiting neighbors.

"Everybody had a piano," she said, and they would gather around it and sing songs in each other's parlors. She remembers the family's first Victrola, and checking the inside of the player piano for presents stashed away for Christmas.

Her husband, Earl, who is now deceased, used to tease her by telling friends Elizabeth proposed to him.

"He wanted to go to Niagara Falls, and he wanted to go before it was too late" in the year, she said. So he proposed and they married on Halloween in 1923, taking a three-week trip to the famous honeymoon spot.

"If you went 23 miles an hour (in the car) you were doing pretty good," she said. "If you went 33, you got arrested."

The shoe collection was started by a friend in Oshkosh who gave her a pair, and she now has pairs from China, Mexico, Guatemala and throughout the country. It's hard to even place where some of them came from, she said.

It's easier to recall the music and the dancing, she said.

"A fella and I got $5 once for being the best waltzers," pretty good money for 1921, she said.

"I remember when the Charleston (dance craze) came in." There was a bare stretch of wooden floor between the living room and dining room rugs in her house then, she said. "We danced so much doing the Charleston we took the varnish right off.".

About five years ago, a serious illness put her in a wheelchair, but she fought back and during two years of rehabilitation regained her step.

"I said I was going to walk, and you've got to think I'm going to do it," she said. "Everybody wants to be well until they pass away, but you don't always get your wish. I just take it as it comes. I'm glad I can do for myself what I can do."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.