Besse Brown Cooper, who passed away at age 116 on Dec. 4 in Georgia, was remarkable not just because she was the oldest person on the planet, but because she was for long one of the healthiest.
Cooper, who was born in 1896 in Tennessee and lived in a log cabin as a young girl, not only lived to become one of eight documented individuals who reached the age of 116 but also made it through virtually her entire lifespan without any serious illnesses or ailments. “She never had surgery in her life,” Cooper’s son Sidney told Georgia Health News in August 2012. In fact, she’d never even been in a hospital at all until she checked in at age 33 to have the first of her four children. And Cooper remained mentally sharp and still possessed what her son described as “amazing” long-term memory. She ably conversed with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal when he visited to honor her with a proclamation last year.
Centenarians have been increasing in number in recent years — in 2010, the U.S. Census found 53,364 people age 100 or older in the U.S., an increase of 5.8 percent since 2000 — making it to Cooper’s age is a level beyond that. So how did Cooper, one of the few people ever to live in three different centuries, manage to stay so fit and vital? Articles about Cooper over the years reveal a few of her secrets:
- Eat a balanced diet, but don’t be afraid to enjoy what you like in moderation. Cooper’s son told Georgia Health News that while his mother ate lots of vegetables and generally avoided “junk food,” she occasionally had a few potato chips, as well as fried chicken and bacon-and-egg breakfasts, the sort of stuff that nutritional purists abhor.
- Do your own yard work. Cooper enjoyed being outdoors and raked her own leaves and did other yard work for decades.
- Don’t assume that genes are everything. While scientists have found evidence that genetic factors play an important role in exceptional longevity and that the trait may be inherited, Cooper proves there are exceptions. Neither of her parents made it past age 72, and her seven siblings all died in the sixties and seventies.
- Solitude may have its benefits. Cooper’s husband Luther died in 1963, when Cooper was in her late sixties. But she didn’t remarry, instead choosing to live alone for nearly another half-century.
- Have a sense of humor. At a ceremony to commemorate the naming of a local bridge after Cooper, her son Sidney noted that his mother’s wit seemed to keep growing sharper as she got older. When she was informed about the honor, Cooper reportedly responded, “I’m glad I gave ‘em a reason to name it.”
Photo: David Goldman/AP