Still, a man who at 105—he’ll be 106 on December 19—has never had a life-threatening disease, who takes no cholesterol or blood-pressure medications and can give himself a clean shave each morning (not to mention a “serious sponge bath with vigorous rubbing all around”), invites certain questions. Is there something about his habits that predisposed a long and healthy life? (He smoked for years.) Is there something about his attitude? (He thinks maybe.) Is there something about his genes? (He thinks not.) And here he cuts me off. He’s not interested in his longevity.
But scientists are. A boom in centenarians is just around the demographic bend; the National Institute on Aging predicts that their number will grow from the 37,000 counted in 1990 to as many as 4.2 million by 2050. Pharmaceutical companies and the National Institutes of Health are throwing money into longevity research. Major medical centers have built programs to satisfy the demand for data and, eventually, drugs. Irving himself agreed to have his blood taken and answer questions for the granddaddy of these studies, the Longevity Genes Project at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, which seeks to determine whether people who live healthily into their tenth or eleventh decade have something in common—and if so, whether it can be made available to everyone else.