In the early 1990s, Tom Perls met two people who would change his life. Perls, then a gerontology fellow at Harvard Medical School, was visiting Boston’s Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for Ageing and needed to see a couple of patients who just happened to be over 100. But he couldn’t find them in their rooms. He eventually tracked down one patient, a 103-year-old woman. She was busy playing Chopin and Mozart on the piano. Perls’ other patient, a 101-year-old former tailor, was discovered in the occupational health room mending his housemates’ clothes.
“They totally surprised me and that’s when the epiphany happened,” says Perls, who is now based at Boston University. “These folks seemed to be ageing incredibly slowly compared to other people.” He wanted to figure out their longevity secrets and vowed to find as many other centenarians as he could. The project became the New England Centenarian Study, the world’s largest study of exceptionally old people.