Hester Ford, the oldest person in the U.S., a supercentenarian, has died.
She was either 115 or 116 years old. It depends on which U.S. Census Bureau documents you read. Either way, Mrs. Hester was the oldest person on record from the United States as of July 30, according to data compiled by the Gerontology Research Group.
Hester lived through The Spanish Flu, both World Wars I and II, the Civil Rights movement, and the latest pandemic.
Mrs. Ford was born on a farm in Lancaster County, South Carolina. She grew up picking cotton and married her husband, John, at 14. A year later, at 15, she had the first of their twelve children. They moved to Charlotte in 1960. Three years later, her husband died. Mrs. Hester lived the rest of her life there. She lived at home on her own for many decades without assistance until the age of 108, when she bruised her ribs in a fall in the bathtub. She then had family members move in and spent her days singing with relatives, playing games, getting some fresh air and exercise, watching home movies, and flipping through old photo albums, her granddaughter Mary Hill told the Charlotte Observer. During the quarantine, relatives and friends drove by Ford’s house in North Carolina to celebrate her birthday in August, leaving presents on the driveway.
Robert D. Young, director of the GRG’s supercentenarian research and database division, told the Observer, “The reality is, Hester Ford’s age, even at 115, still made her the last known American born before 1906,” Young said in an email. “When you consider that she was a mother of a WWII-era veteran … it really puts into perspective: This was one of our last living links to an era that is nearly bygone.”
Her great-granddaughter, Tanisha Patterson-Powe, in a statement emailed to the Observer, honored her by saying, “She was a pillar and stalwart to our family and provided much needed love, support, and understanding to us all. She was the seed that sprouted leaves and branches which is now our family. God saw fit to make her the matriarch of our family and blessed us to be her caretakers and recipients of her legacy She not only represented the advancement of our family but of the Black African American race and culture in our country. She was a reminder of how far we have come as people on this earth.”
When asked for the secret to her longevity in a 2020 interview with the Observer, Ford responded, “I just live right, all I know.”
Of course, scientists have their own theories about how supercentenarians like Ford continue to thrive into old age.
For instance, a 2019 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that supercentenarians may have above-average levels of a rare immune cell called CD4 CTLs in their blood, helping them ward off disease. The cells are a kind of T helper cell that directly attack infected and cancerous cells. In the study, about 2.8% of young participants’ T helper cells were CD4 CTLs, compared with 25% in the supercentenarians studied. In other studies, scientists found that other variants may help reduce the risk of certain age-related diseases, such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
Specific diets have also been linked to longevity. According to the Observer, in Mrs. Hester’s case, her granddaughter said that she usually started her day with a breakfast of grits, pancakes, waffles, or oatmeal. Then, she’d have sausage or bacon with a side of eggs, a piece of toast, and half a banana.
At the time of her death, Mrs. Hester had 68 grandchildren, 125 great-grandchildren, and at least 120 great-great-grandchildren.
Talk about a long and fruitful life!