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Life at 117 for an unintentional supercentenarian

When asked about her secret, Maria Branyas just shakes her head and says, “I haven’t to get to this age.”

One cannot help but wonder about the , what such a long life must feel like. Branyas lives in a nursing home in northeastern Spain (Olot, Girona) and recently celebrated her 117th birthday with a cake and a small gathering. “We split up family visits because she doesn’t like being around a lot of people,” said Rosa Moret, her youngest daughter who’s 80 years old.

Branyas’ spirits have been “down” for the last few months. She’s not in pain, says her daughter, but “she’s fading.” Branyas is fully aware of her surroundings, although she suffers from hearing loss and impaired mobility. But her mind is fine and she lives a quiet life, oblivious to the media clamor outside the nursing home.

Life changed in January 2023 after Lucile Randon of France died at age 118. Branyas was 115 years old and became the oldest living woman in the world. The media arrived at her doorstep and she met with Pere Aragonès, president of the government of Catalonia. The city where she was born — San Francisco, California — honored her, the family fielded dozens of phone calls, her son-in-law set up a Twitter account, filmmaker Sam Green interviewed her for a documentary, and Maria’s face was all over the news. It was too much, so the family decided to stop allowing visitors. “She’s not up to it anymore,” they said.

In spring 2023, cancer expert contacted Branyas’ nursing home and asked to speak to the family of the supercentenarian (someone over 110 years old). He wanted to study the cells of a person who had reached such an extraordinary age. “We never get our hands on the cells of a 117-year-old person. They’re very rare,” said Esteller. In Spain, nearly 20,000 people are over 100, with 758 surpassing 105. The National Institute of Statistics cannot disclose exact figures for those over 110 because of information privacy laws. According to , Spain has at least three living supercentenarians, but the registry only lists those who have voluntarily shared their data.

“What do you expect from life?” Esteller asked the old woman. “Death,” she replied. Branyas does not have , neurodegeneration or heart issues. She realizes that her life becomes increasingly unusual with every passing day, but death isn’t a taboo topic. “I feel like I’ve lived longer than expected,” she recently. “Death is like that old friend you know will drop by anytime. I’ve been ready for a while now, and I think he might come knocking soon. I just want to have the serenity to handle whatever comes my way and enough happiness to savor the good stuff. I’ll never turn bitter, no matter what life throws at me.”

Esteller took blood, mouth and urine samples from Branyas. “We will study the genome, microbes, proteins and metabolism to uncover clues explaining high longevity, and investigate any genetic mutations,” he said. Even without conclusive results, the scientist already has some data: Branyas’ cells are roughly 10 years younger than their actual age. How is this possible? “Because she was dealt a great hand and has played her cards very well for 117 years,” said Esteller, who likens genetics to cards. They can be good or bad, but they must be played well to have a long life. “If you’ve got a good hand but don’t know how to play poker, you’re out of luck. In her case, it seems she hit the jackpot with good genes and healthy habits.” But the wear and tear of 117 years can be clearly seen with a microscope. “Her cells no longer have the tips of the chromosomes, which are like a protective hood. And she barely has any stem cells and immune system cells left.”

A look at the Branyas family tree reveals a higher than average number of octogenarians and nonagenarians. “When you chat with the daughter, you’ll see she doesn’t seem 80 years old.” He’s right. Rosa sounds firm and decisive on the phone. She responds quickly and specifically, with a hint of humor at times: “You journalists always ask the same thing.”

Life expectancy

Rosa recalls a typical family life, where her mother was mostly at home. “My mother was a housewife. She had a quiet life, without work stress. She thinks life is tough these days, but maybe it’s just the same old story for every generation.” Branyas did the shopping, knitted, cleaned the house and cooked. There was no urgency, no rush. “Nowadays, young people end up grabbing fast food or ready-made meals. But not us. Back in the day, it was always vegetables for dinner or maybe a good potato omelet. It’s what they call the Mediterranean diet now. I know that helped.”

Branyas survived almost four years ago. “People grumbled about being stuck at home, but we’ve got electricity, phones, TV, food, hot water and a roof over our heads. We didn’t have all that back in the day. Humanity made it through, and I’ve never lost my zest for life,” she shared during the pandemic. It wasn’t the first time she faced adversity. Her father died at sea returning to Barcelona from the U.S., and she survived the Spanish flu, two world wars, the Spanish Civil War, and Franco’s regime. All that made her stronger. “It’s a fact that people who have endured famines hold an advantage as survivors,” said Esteller.

Spain ranks fifth globally in life expectancy (83 years), after Japan, Switzerland, Korea and Singapore. Japan is the only one of those countries with a — geographic areas with lower rates of chronic diseases and a longer life expectancy (Nuoro, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, United States; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Icaria, Greece). “These areas stand out due to strong genetics maintained by inbreeding common in rural areas,” said Esteller, “and for having benign climates and prudent diets.” There is recognized by the Gerontology Research Group, which supplies validated longevity data to the Guinness Book of World Records. “It’s likely an evolutionary mechanism; women are more essential due to the nine-month pregnancy,” said Esteller.

Branyas’ thoughtful and grateful demeanor aligns with the psychological profile of supercentenarians. Lola Merino, a psychology professor at the Complutense University of Madrid and longevity researcher, found that those aged 100 or older excel at savoring the small things in life and embracing positive emotions. Merino believes that psychological aspects alongside genetics, diet and physical activity play a role in longevity. “Longevity is multifactorial.” She adds that love and affection accentuate these emotions. “Centenarians form close bonds with others. They feel loved and show affection, which is very important.”

“The day I have to leave for good, I hope a few folks will think it was worth having me around for a bit. That’s all I want,” wrote Maria Branyas, the woman who never asked to be the oldest person in the world.