Centenarians, COVID and Grandpa

Joseph R. Anticaglia MD
Medical Advisory Board

It was May of 2020 when Jeannine’s frustration spilled into anger. She fired blanks trying to get her grandfather vaccinated against COVID-19. Doctors’ offices, “We don’t have the vaccine.” Local health officials, “We’re working on it. I suggest you go to the internet (.gov) for the latest information.” The internet was unhelpful. Hospitals “nada.” As a last resort, “I called my congressman and explained the situation.” This is how the story unfolded.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States was on January 21, 2020 in a 35-year-old man from Washington state. Over the next several weeks we were told that by Easter and surely by summer COVID would disappear, just fade away. On 12 May of 2020, Anthony Fauci, MD testified before the Senate that the US death toll of 80,000 is likely an underestimate. Of particular concern was that most of the deaths due to COVID at that time occurred in nursing homes and among the elderly.

Telephone Conversation

“Hello, I hope you can help us out. I’m calling on behalf of my grandfather who is going to be 100 years old in a couple of months.”

The Senator’s assistant said, “That’s great. Congratulations!”

“Thank you, but this is the problem. I’ve been running in circles trying to get him vaccinated against COVID-19. I’m worried he’ll never reach 100 because of the virus. Can you help us out?

“I’ll see what we can do. Let me have your name and contact information.”

“Surprise! Within one week, my grandfather got the first of two shots to protect him against COVID. Moreover, he became a ‘cause celebre.’ His picture was in the newspaper and people began talking about him and centenarians.”


belong to a unique club that have celebrated their 100th birthday and beyond. Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) of France is the oldest person ever. She died at the age of 122 years and 164 days! She was never overweight, a churchgoer who enjoyed a good laugh and two cigarettes a day.

Jeanne Calment By Etat civil d’Arles;

The oldest verified living person is Kane Tanuka who turned 118 on January 2, 2021. Tanuka, born in 1903, was scheduled in May of this year to pass the Olympic torch on its travels to the summer games in Tokyo, Japan. COVID-19 forced her to relinquish her spot on the relay team.

Blues Zones

A recurrent and perplexing question is what do centenarians have in common? Is there a special sauce that allows “longevitors” to shatter the 100-year-old barrier?

I previously talked about the work of Dan Buettner who coined the term Blue Zones. He described areas in the world where people have survived the longest with the least incidence of chronic diseases, such as, arthritis, diabetes, and hypertension.

Buettner reported that in Nicoya, Costa Rica the people live with a sense of family and purpose (plan de vida). They have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. The Ogliastra Sardinians of Italy don’t need a gym to exercise and keep in shape. They walk, chop wood, and eat the food they plant.

In Okinawa, another blue zone, many utter before each meal hara hachi bu — eat until you are 80% full. Once you feel stomach pressure, you’re probably 80% full. In contrast, in the United States we’re often overfed, undernourished and overweight.

Individuals with a strong sense of faith live longer. Spirituality infuses daily living for many of the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma California. They treat their bodies as temples and experience a sense of community.


The work of Bertrand Jeune and others compared Jeanne Calment with people who have reached at least 115 years of age. They concluded there were very few common traits among the approximate twenty people in their study. The people in this group never were obese, never smoked or extraordinarily little and 90% of them were women. They experienced a turn for the worse after the age of 105 gradually losing their ability to see to hear and became wheelchair bound.


“My grandfather prides himself at being healthy.” Jeannine continued, “To this day he exercises regularly and never has been overweight. Back in the day, he worked as a civil engineer. At parties he used to show off by doing head stands. During the summer months in the pool, he would do somersaults off the diving board. When he was 65 years old, amusement park barkers lost money when they tried to guess his age.”

“As a child he told me fantastic stories of his adventures. I believed him hook line and Grandpa.

We used to look at the globe and he would tell me places where he had been. He was a sea captain that sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. He’d point to a place outside of Nepal and talk about how he rode elephants through nine feet tall grass. When he was in Egypt, he travelled ten miles on a camel from Cairo to the great pyramid of Giza. Incidentally, he built the Empire State Building, was a friend of Geronimo who gave him a corncob pipe, rode Secretariat, the greatest horse ever to the triple crown and didn’t like Marseille.”

“There was a silk pillow with flowers on it in my bedroom that he bought just for me from Shanghai. I still have it. He played the piano by ear, and he used to play and sing his favorite song to me, ‘Jeannine, I dream of Lilac Times.’ However, over the past few years he has never touched the piano. He’s slowing down but still has his wits about him. I was euphoric when the family got together to reminisce and celebrate his 100th birthday.” And I’m more relaxed now that he’s vaccinated against COVID-19.”


  1. Epstein, Louis et al; Table B — Verified Supercentenarians; Gerontology Research Group, Jan 1, 2015
  2. Bernard Jeune, Jean-Marie Robine et al; Jeanne Calment and Her Successors; in the book Supercentenarians, April 2010
  3. List of the Verified Oldest People; Wikipedia Jeanne Calment, Wikipedia
  4. Buettner, Dan; Blues Zones, Barnes & Noble, November 2012
  5. Photo Jeanne Calment; By Etat civil d’Arles; http://www.archives13.fr/archives13/CG13/pid/102 (archive copy),
  6. Anticaglia, Joseph MD; Centenarian Secrets, How Can I Join Their 100-Year-Old Club? Doctor’s Column, HC Smart, January 5. 2018

This article is intended solely as a learning experience. Please consult your physician for diagnostic and treatment options.