Saturday, April 19, 2008

a really old woman

Maybe it was a lifetime of chores on the family farm that account for Edna Parker's long life. Or maybe just good genes explain why the world's oldest known person turns 115 on Sunday, defying staggering odds.
Scientists who study longevity hope Parker and others who live to 110 or beyond -- they're called supercentenarians -- can help uncover the mystery of extreme longevity.
"We don't know why she's lived so long," said Don Parker, her 59-year-old grandson. "But she's never been a worrier and she's always been a thin person, so maybe that has something to do with it."
On Friday, Parker laughed and smiled as relatives and guests released 115 balloons into sunny skies outside her nursing home. Dressed in pearls, a blue and white polka dot dress and new white shoes, she clutched a red rose during the festivities.
Two years ago, researchers from the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University took a blood sample from Parker for the group's DNA database of supercentenarians.
Her DNA is now preserved with samples of about 100 other people who made the 110-year milestone and whose genes are being analyzed, said Dr. Tom Perls, an aging specialist who directs the project.
"They're really our best bet for finding the elusive Holy Grail of our field -- which are these longevity-enabling genes," he said.
There are only 75 people alive -- 64 women and 11 men -- who are 110 or older, according to the Gerontology Research Group, an Inglewood, Calif.-based group that verifies reports of extreme ages.
Parker, who was born April 20, 1893, was recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest of that group last August after the death of a Japanese woman four months her senior.
A widow since her husband, Earl, died in 1938 of a heart attack, Parker lived alone in their farmhouse until age 100, when she moved into her son Clifford's home. She cheated death a few months later.
One winter's night, Clifford and his wife returned home from a high school basketball game to find her was missing. Don, their son, says he discovered his grandmother in the snowy darkness near the farm's apple orchard. He scooped up her rigid body and rushed back to the house.
"She was stiff as a 2-by-4. We really thought that was the end of her," he said.
But Parker recovered fully, suffering only frostbitten fingertips.
Fifteen years later, her room at the Heritage House Convalescent Center in Shelbyville, Ind., about 25 miles southeast of Indianapolis, is adorned with teddy bears and photos of her five grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and 13 great-great grandchildren. She's outlived her two sons, Clifford and Earl Jr.
During a visit this week, Parker was captivated by a new album of photos and documents from her life that Don's wife, Charlene, had assembled.
"That's the boys," she said hoarsely, tapping a photo of her two late sons in their youth. "Clifford and Junior."
Her two sisters also are deceased. Georgia lived to be 99, while her sister Opal was 88 when she died.
Parker's long-lived sisters are typical of other centenarians, according to Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's Institute for Aging Research in New York. Nearly all of them have a sister, mother or other relative who lived a long life, he said.
"Longevity is in the family history," Barzilai said.
He and other scientists have found several genetic mutations in centenarians that may play a role in either slowing the aging process or boosting resistance to age-related diseases.
Perls said the secret to a long life is now believed to be a mix of genetics and environmental factors such as health habits. He said his research on about 1,500 centenarians hints at another factor that may protect people from illnesses such as heart attacks and stroke -- they appear not to dwell on stressful events.
"They seem to manage their stress better than the rest of us," he said.
Guiness World Records and thier holders
George Bell, a sheriff's deputy in Norfolk, Va., stands 7 feet 8 inches tall. In November 2007, Guinness World Records named the 50-year-old the tallest man in the U.S.
Leonid Stadnik of the Ukraine is the world's tallest man. The former veterinarian stands 8 feet 5 inches tall.
Stadnik is 8 inches taller than the former titleholder, China's Bao Xishun. He is 7 feet 9 inches.
Jackie Bibby of Texas earned a Guinness title for sitting in a bathtub with 87 rattlesnakes. Bibby broke his previous record by 12 snakes.
He Pingping, who at 2 feet 5 inches tall has applied to be recognized as the shortest person in the world.
Sandy Allen, the world's tallest woman, is 7 feet 7 inches tall.
C. Manoharan of India first set a record for swallowing 200 earthworms in 30 seconds. He's also trying to set a record by flossing two snakes through one nostril.
Lee Redmond of Utah got a spot in the books for fingernails reaching a combined length of 24 feet 7 inches.
Elaine Davidson, a Brazilian who lives in Scotland, set the record for most body piercings at 4,250.
Tran Van Hay of Vietnam is thought to have the world's longest hair, measuring over 20 feet, but it has yet to be verified. He hasn't had a haircut in more than 30 years.
Aaron Studham of Massachusetts set a record for highest hair. It stands 24 inches.
Switzerland's Marco Hort can fit 264 straws in his mouth, more than anyone else.
China's Li Jianhua has set world records for pulling a car the longest distance with an ear and lifting the most weight with an ear.
Turkey's Mehmet Ozyurek set the record for the world's longest nose, measuring nearly 3 1/2 inches.

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