Exceptional Longevity Study

Phase I of the Exceptional Longevity Study was a baseline assessment of Iowa centenarians. The objective of Phase I was to strengthen research of exceptional longevity, particularly in rural areas. Some of the findings of the completed research have been:

  • Many, but not all, centenarians show levels of mild cognitive impairment.
  • The majority of centenarians report to be in good or excellent health.
  • Centenarians are compromised in a number of activities of daily living.
  • Most centenarians report a normal weight.
  • Centenarians are low in neuroticism and high in agreeableness.
  • Centenarians have a smaller social circle, but they have help available if needed.
  • Centenarians exhibit some depressive symptoms and moderate levels of loneliness.

Phase II assesses short-term changes in cognition and activity. Visits were made to the study subjects every two months for a total of four visits. During these visits, participants worked on a cognition task, self-rated health test, verbal fluency test, reasoning test, life event test, mental health test, and functional abilities test. Participants wore an armband to measure heart rate and activity level. The armband helped assess if participants were fatigued or susceptible to mood swings. Some of the findings of Phase II include:

  • The individual-level cognitive change patterns of centenarians can be characterized as “stability,” “enhancement,” “decrement,” and “variability.”
  • A decrease in positive affect was observed.
  • Centenarians with fewer financial resources were more likely to show decreases in positive affect.
  • Handgrip strength, but not physical activity, was associated with better functioning in centenarians.
  • Perceived adequacy of economic resources was positively associated with activities of daily living, cognitive ability, and psychological well-being.

Phase III involved faculty associates in gerontology collaborating with the faculty in computer science on their ongoing Smart Home Initiative. In addition to the collaboration, focus-group sessions were held with a group of older adults who participate in the ISU exercise clinic, a local community-dwelling older adults group, and a group of rural older adults. The goal of these focus groups was to explore ways in which technology can help promote independence, to find out what technology is currently working, and to assess what modifications need to be made to meet the needs of older adults. Some of the findings of Phase III include:

  • Older adults are quite enthusiastic about learning new forms of technology.
  • Older adults emphasize the importance of technology that helps them maintain their independence and quality of life.
  • There are several important themes that emerged from our focus group interviews: frustrations with technology, use of technology for better transportation, technology to help and assist in daily life, technology for self-monitoring (e.g., health status), and technology for gaming.

Phase IV is currently under way. The focus on this study of centenarians is on the social and family support system of older adults. The results of our study will be compared to a parallel study in Osaka, Japan.

Georgia Centenarian Study

The Georgia Centenarian Study aims to assess adaptation and functioning of very old individuals.The study also hopes to understand what extends genetics and family longevity, experiences in the past, environmental support, individual characteristics, behavioral skills and health behaviors influence longevity, and well-being for very old individuals.

Phase I of the study involved a cross-sectional study examining the unique adaptations of community-dwelling and cognitively-intact centenarians, octogenarians, and sexagenarians in Georgia. This phase was a collaboration among The University of Georgia, Medical College of Georgia, and Iowa State University. Funded by NIMH.

Phase II of the study involved a study of longitudinal changes in adaptation capacity among the three cohorts. Funded by NIMH.

Phase III identified and isolated longevity genes, neuropathology, and functional capacity of a population-based sample of centenarians and controls in 44 counties in Northern Georgia. This phase was a collaboration among The University of Georgia, Tulane University, Boston University, University of Kentucky, Emory University, Duke University, Wayne State University, Iowa State University and University of Michigan. Funded by NIA.

Results: The Georgia team has found that 20 to 25 percent of centenarians are community-dwelling, and cognitively intact (Poon, Clayton, Martin, Johnson, Courtenay, Sweaney, Merriam, Pless, & Thielman, 1992). However, the team also reported that at least 50 percent of centenarians have some form of cognitive impairment, 60 to 70 percent some form of disability, and some are completely dependent (Hagberg, Poon, & Homma, 2001). The team concluded that centenarians represent the ultimate range of independence and dependence, frailty and strength and suggest there is much to be learned from centenarians about survival, disease, frailty, and independence to maintain a high quality of life in older adulthood. Please visit the Georgia Centenarian Study webpage.

Health and Retirement Study (HRS)

The Health and Retirement Study is a national longitudinal panel study that surveys economic, health, marital, and family status of about 20,000 individuals over age 50 and their spouses. The study is supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA U01AG009740) and by the Social Security Administration (SSA). The HRS website contains information on the process to register for access to HRS public release data (

The latest RAND HRS longitudinal data includes a total of 13 waves, which is a biennial survey design on many variables relevant for older Americans. For more information, please visit here :

Using the data from HRS, our lab aims to explore the changes over time among those who survived to 100 years old. Our specific interest in using the Health and Retirement Study data set is to include a unique sample, exceptional survivors, and track their physical health, functional health, cognitive functioning, mental health, as well as their individual and social resources before they reached 100 years of age.

Research findings

Selected findings from our research laboratory:
  • Higher scores in positive emotions, conscientiousness, social support, religious coping, and engaged lifestyle were associated with higher levels of functioning among centenarians (Martin et al., 2011).
  • Self-rated health and daily activities, as well as positive and negative emotions and social support were significant predictors of fatigue among oldest-old adults (Cho et al., 2012).
  • More recent centenarian are more satisfied with life, feel less depressed, show less positive or negative emotion, and they have more perceived economic resources when compared to earlier born centenarians. More recently born centenarians are also physically and cognitively better off (Cho et al., 2012).
  • Handgrip strength was associated with better functioning in centenarians (Franke et al., 2012).
  • Most centenarians do not feel able to handle their finances, yet believe that they are doing relatively well financially (Garasky et al., 2012).
  • Continued activity, high levels of financial resources, and self-rated health are important components in affective states among very old adults (Martin et al., 2012).
  • The APOE e4 gene is directly related to positive emotions and is related to negative emotions in interaction with life events (Martin et al., 2013).
  • Marriage events were the most frequent important life experiences mentioned by centenarians. Men were more likely to report events related to work and retirement compared to women, and women reported events related to family as the most important life events when compared to men (da Rosa et al., 2014).
  • In the U.S., centenarians who are more agreeable and more conscientious are less of a burden to caregivers; U.S. centenarians who are neurotic and have more diseases are more of a burden to caregivers. In Japan, centenarians who are more active, open-minded and agreeable are less likely to be a burden to caregivers (Cho et al., 2015).
  • Two personality dimensions are associated with successful aging. “Alpha” (e., emotional stability, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) was associated with higher levels of cognition, higher likelihood of engaging in volunteer work, higher levels of activities of daily living, and higher levels of subjective health. Beta (i.e., extraversion and openness to experience) was also positively associated with cognition and engaging in volunteer work (Baek et al., 2016)
  • The number of past negative life events that older adults have experienced predicts older adults’ better mental status. Oldest-old adults’ age, education, social supports, and social provision are also associated with their cognition. Cumulative negative life events may protect people in cognitive function as implicated by our results. (Lee et al., 2017).
  • Georgia Centenarian participants report higher scores on well-being (satisfaction with social relations and psychological comfort). Health resources (cognitive function, hearing problems, and activities of daily living) are strong predictors of well-being in both countries. Social resources (living with others) are strongly associated with one dimension of well-being (attitude toward one’s aging) among the Japanese participants. (Nakagawa et al., 2017).
  • Approximately 75% of the Georgia Centenarian Study participants show some level of objective visual impairment, and 56% of them report that they have visual impairment. Objective vision impairment is associated with depression. (Toyoshima, 2017).
  • Centenarians from the Georgia Centenarian Study show higher levels of functioning in all domains when compared to the Tokyo centenarians. There are stronger associations between cognitive and sensory function with physical function for the Tokyo sample. (Martin et al., 2018).
  • Tokyo centenarians have fewer diseases and a lower BMI when compared to Georgia centenarians, but blood pressure is higher among Japanese centenarians. (Martin et al., 2019).
  • “Resilient” centenarians have higher scores on agreeableness and extraversion and lower scores on neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness. “Non-resilient” centenarians have higher scores on neuroticism and lower scores on extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Fifty percent of U.S. centenarians and 65% of Japanese centenarians are classified as “resilient” (da Rosa et al., 2020).