February 9, 2008

USA: Happy 113 Years, 73 days -- But Who's Counting?

Catherine Hagel is the fourth-oldest American. Pic: Jeff Wheeler

MINNEAPOLIS ST.PAUL-MINNESOTA (Star Tribune), February 9. 2008:

By Warren Wolfe, Star Tribune

During her first 111 years, Catherine Hagel was a doer, a talker and a farm wife who taught her children, by example and expectation, the value of hard work, a positive attitude and an utter trust that God gets everything right.

Now she lives in a quiet inner place, responding occasionally with a word or faint smile as a nursing home aide offers a gentle caress or her daughter speaks into her better left ear.

Still, Hagel continues to break new ground. Today, at age 113 and 73 days, she enters the record books.

Hagel is the longest-lived Minnesotan, according to the Gerontology Research Group, which documents and tracks "supercentenarians" -- people 110 and older.

This is the day Hagel surpassed the previous record set by her sister-in-law and good friend from childhood, Delvina Dahlheimer, who died at 113 and 72 days in 2002.

She's also the fourth-oldest American and seventh-oldest person in the world -- the oldest being a woman in Indiana who is 114 and 295 days.

Cecilia Gulczinski, 89, Catherine Hagel’s oldest daughter, visits her often at her New Hope nursing home. Hagel lived on her farm near Rogers until she was 100, said her daughter, and remained vigorous for years after. By Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

"Mom was really good up until she was 111," said daughter Cecelia Gulczinski, who at 89 is the oldest of nine surviving children. "And she's still healthy enough -- there's nothing really wrong. She's just getting a little old."

Hagel is in a rare group -- perhaps 300 worldwide -- who have reached at least age 110, according to the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University.

Like most very old people, Hagel never held much with doctoring, takes no medications and comes from a long-lived family.

"I don't know, people in our family just tend to live long," Gulczinski said. "They say it's good genes, good lifestyle and good luck -- oh, and not taking life too seriously."

To aid in the search for clues to extremely long life, researchers at the Centenarian Study last year took blood samples from mother and daughter.

"Maybe it's Mom's German blood," Gulczinski joked.

Camping out in the garage

Until she was 100, Hagel stayed on the 40-acre farm near Rogers after her husband died in 1966, keeping up a huge garden, sewing, quilting and holding court with visiting relatives.

"When Mom was about 80 we tried to get her to move after the house burned down, but she refused," her daughter said. "She camped out on a cot in the garage, then in an old trailer house till we rebuilt the farmhouse."

Finally, increasing frailty and a painful case of untreated shingles drove Hagel to leave the farm and move to Northridge Care Center in New Hope.

She was born Catherine Dahlheimer on November 28, 1894, on a farm near Dayton.

That year Grover Cleveland was president, Coca-Cola was first bottled and the Great Hinckley Fire killed more than 400 people.

She was confirmed by the legendary Archbishop John Ireland and at age 22 married neighbor John Hagel.

As her daughter talked, her hand stroking her mother's arm, Hagel stared into the distance, her gaze shifting occasionally to Gulczinki.

"Mom was always so active -- in church, in the community, with her family. They say that's important to a good life when you get old," Gulczinski said.

"She used to tell such stories -- about the Indians living nearby when she grew up, seeing her first car, meeting Dad when he came over to help on the farm, about growing up one of 10 kids and then raising 11 of her own," Gulczinski said.

"Now I have to speak for Mom."

How to reach old age

Many researchers say that the lifespan of humans is about 125. The oldest confirmed person was Jeanne Calment, who died in France in 1999 at 122.

"Why do some people live to be supercentenarians and others don't? We have some clues," said Dr. Thomas Perls, who started the New England Centenarian Study in 1994.

Like Hagel, they have healthy hearts, lungs and circulatory systems, and they don't have problems with cancer or dementia. They're rarely ill and seem to deal well with stress.

"When something bad would happen, Mom always said, 'Well, it's in God's hands,'" Gulczinski said.

Hagel comes from a long-lived family, evidence she got a genetic head start on the road to longevity.

She takes no prescription medications that chronic health conditions might require. Another clue: Many old women had children in their mid- to late 30s; Hagel's last, her second set of identical twins, were born when she was 34.

"They can be rich or poor, urban or rural, vegetarian or meat-eater, but they're rarely obese," Perls said.

Hagel was a scrawny 5 pounds at birth -- so slight her father doubted she would survive. She was always thin.

Like mother like daughter?

During her frequent visits with her mother, the still-vigorous Gulczinski thinks about her own longevity.

"I've probably got a few years left. But I don't know if I want to live as long as Mom," she said. "Mom's world is pretty small now.

"Living to 113? I don't know. As long as I can get around, see people, go to church -- if I'm as good as Mom, I guess living to 110 would be OK."

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