Sunday, May 11 of 2014. It’s Mother’s Day. The backdrop is the Rogers Centre where the Blue Jays are warming up. Sporting a crisp Blue Jays jersey and a pink hat with sterling white hair jutting out at the sides, Kitty Cohen is eagerly pacing in the dugout. Her name is called over the PA. She jogs to the mound, enthusiastically, and grabs the ball from Ace, the Jays’ mascot. Her face lights up with determination. She winds up her arm a number of times and lobs a perfect underhand throw squarely over the plate into catcher Josh Thole’s glove.
Then 101-years-old, Kitty Cohen becomes the oldest Canadian to throw the first pitch at a professional baseball game.
On a cool yet sun-soaked November day, I visit Cohen. The mission was simple: what’s the secret to living to 100? As Cohen opens the door to her home at The Terraces of Baycrest Retirement Residence in Toronto, the sun fills her apartment.
The first thing I notice is the iPad sitting on her kitchen table. The walls are splashed with pictures of generations of her family. A large glass award sits atop her mantle. She sees me eyeing the award. “They gave that to me this year,” she says, her hazel eyes twinkling in the morning sun. The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation awarded Cohen the inaugural Heart and Sole Award in front of 4,500 supporters in September. Under her name is inscribed: “It’s the right thing to do [to walk for cancer].” Something she has done over the past eight years raising more than $20,000 for cancer research.
We are all bound by one thing: our mortality. It’s a glum truth. We all die one day.
We are all bound by one thing: our mortality. It’s a glum truth. We all die one day. But the average age of death is changing, drastically. According to the United Nations, it is estimated that there were 316,600 living centenarians worldwide in 2012. In Canada alone, it is estimated that there are some 7,500 centenarians. That’s roughly 22 people for every 100,000. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, however, one-third of babies born in 2013 in the UK are expected to live to 100. Yeah, one-third.
As I set the award back down on the mantle, Cohen asks if she can recite a poem for me. Before I can respond, she begins reciting from memory without missing a beat:
“How would you like to soar up to the sky? / up to the sky so blue / oh, it is one of the most thrilling things that ever a non-centenarian can do / up, up over the sea.”
She wrote it years back, before becoming a centenarian, after parasailing in Jamaica. The funny thing is that I can picture it, this woman sitting beside me, who is about to turn 103 in the coming weeks, parasailing high above Jamaica, her sterling white hair flowing in the ocean breeze.
My mission bubbles up. How did Cohen live to be a centenarian? What’s the big secret? Her husband passed away 40 years ago. She’s a great-grandmother now, which she notes being her greatest achievement. Is it a shot of whisky before bed? Is it a daily ritual involving voodoo?
She looks at me calmly. “It’s to keep moving,” Cohen says, bluntly. It started with her first job when she was a teenager as a legal secretary, a job she held for her whole working career. Every day she would walk two miles to and from work at 255 Bay Street in Toronto. “From that time on, when I was in my teens, I have walked. I walk everywhere I can.” She still walks every day, sometimes with a walker or cane now due to her vertigo acting up. She still goes to her tap dance lessons every Wednesday.
It sounds simple enough. And new statistics back up her claim. Humans aren’t meant to be sedentary, but that’s exactly what’s happening with modern business practises. We sit. All day. Staring into computer screens. In fact, according to Medical Billing and Coding, sitting more than six hours a day increases risk of death by up to 40% than someone that sits for three hours a day. Researchers are going so far to say that sitting is the new smoking.
Same applies to the mind. The brain needs to be fed, constantly. Cohen recites another poem, this one about never allowing the mind to go idle—idleness is the devil’s playground. Playing Scrabble on her iPad or reading the paper are her favourite ways of fighting the idleness. That coupled with keeping a positive attitude.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Cohen begins. “I am. And that’s the gratitude that I feel. I never ever in my wildest dreams considered age a detriment. I never thought I’d reach 100.”
There are many varied claims for people to live to be 100. Some say it’s due to high levels of vitamin A and vitamin E in centenarians. Or a higher red blood cell count than others. The research goes as far to say that many centenarians, both male and female, tend to have extroverted personalities, according to research at the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University. Overall, however, research points to five major criteria for one’s longevity: overall health including weight and amount of exercise, heredity (Cohen’s mom lived to be 99), education level, personality and lifestyle.
Sitting with Cohen and discussing her life, there’s a question that’s eating at me. For someone that has been on earth for over 100 years, has lived through both world wars, has buried children, what’s the one thing she still wants to do?
“I want to run [the bases] at the Rogers Centre,” Cohen is quick to answer. I stop her. Didn’t they allow her to run the field when she threw the first pitch? They didn’t, she retorted, that great-grandmotherly flame quite present.
“I should break in, that’s what I should do.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the February 2016 edition of Inside Fitness magazine.