Number of Canadians living to 100 hit a record high, new census figures show

The number of Canadians living to 100 and beyond reached a record high in 2021. Some centenarians say getting there is all about keeping your hands busy, having a loving family and enjoying life’s small pleasures.

New figures released by Statistics Canada show that the number of Canadians aged 100 or older has increased from just 1,065 in 1971 to 9,545 in the 2021 census. Most Canadian centenarians — 7,715 — are women.

The increase can’t be explained by simple population growth. In 1971, just 4.9 people out of every 100,000 Canadians were 100 or older; in 2021, it was 25.8 per 100,000.

Laura Tamblyn Watts is the founder and CEO of CanAge, a national seniors’ advocacy organization. She said that Canadians are living much longer now thanks to improved drug therapies and vaccines, coupled with a more active lifestyle.

“We are out more in the world, we’re walking more, we’re engaged in more physical exercise and we have more flexibility in our work schedule,” she said.

“It’s a big change from really being stuck in offices and factories as we were used to in much earlier years. Movement matters.”

Watts said that loneliness also shortens lives and people today have more ways to stay in touch than previous generations did. But the biggest factor, she said, is the drop in tobacco use.

“We are really starting to see a narrowing of that now as generations that are not smoking as much,” she said.  

Mildred Leadbeater, formerly of Cape Breton, N.S., is 101. She said she’s looking forward to celebrating her 102nd birthday this coming June — an occasion that usually means a gift of scotch.

She said she only takes a small drink on weekends, never uses ice and never adds enough water to “drown it.”

“The doctor from the clinic came to Cape Breton and he said, ‘If you drink scotch, you’ll live a long life and you won’t have any ordinary ailments,'” she said from her daughter’s home in Pembroke, Ont., where she now lives. “And I don’t have any ordinary ailments and I’ve lived a long life. He told the truth.”

Mildred Leadbeater holds a picture of her during the Second World War, when she served as a teletype operator in Ottawa. (submitted)

Born in 1920, Leadbeater was the seventh child of Scottish immigrant parents in Glace Bay, N.S. She was a twin but her sister and mother died in childbirth; she herself was sickly as a newborn. Her dad, she said, found himself a single father of six children and ill-equipped to deal with a child who was not expected to live very long.

A neighbour offered to adopt Leadbeater and she grew up next door to her biological siblings, outliving them all and going on to be the mother of seven children herself.

Leadbeater said she believes her longevity was made possible by playing piano and keeping a positive attitude.

“I come from a Scottish family and played a lot of Scottish music with the fiddlers … so I guess that helped me along the road,” she said.

Mildred Leadbeater says she has played piano all her life. (submitted)

“The lord gave me a good disposition and I still have it and don’t know, I laugh at a lot of things, I don’t pay attention to too much.

“I look at the happy side of life and I’ve had a happy life. That’s why I’m still here. It’s just my makeup. I was always easygoing. If something happens I just say, ‘Well it happened, get over it, no use making a big story out of anything.'”

Jane Rylett is the scientific director of the Institute of Aging at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. She said that while Leadbeater is on the right track, genetics also play a part.

“I think attitude is worth a whole lot in this realm. I really think it is a combination of good genes, attitude and a good healthy lifestyle,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have a glass of scotch now and then.”

Douglas Keirstead celebrates his 103rd birthday in January 2022 at the Veterans’ Health Centre in Moncton, N.B. (submitted)

A positive attitude did seem to make a difference for Douglas Keirstead, who turned 103 this year. Born in Coles Island, N.B., Keirstead was married twice. After his second wife passed away, he lived on his own up until the age of 100.

He now lives in the Veterans’ Health Centre in Moncton, N.B., where he has nothing but good things to say about the people he spends his days with.

“It couldn’t be better. As far as I’m concerned, it’s perfect,” he said of the residence. “They are just such pleasant people. I don’t know how they could ever round up so many that are so good.”

Keirstead also said he was lucky to have a “wonderful family growing old” and retains happy memories of his loved ones.

“They are just so close to me it’s unreal,” he said.

His life hasn’t always been easy. Unsettled by his time serving in the Second World War, he said it took a long time for him to ease back into civilian life afterward. He had a heart attack in 1985 and spent 12 days in intensive care, but bounced back from that as well.

Douglas Keirstead wears his war medals at the Veterans’ Health Centre in Moncton, N.B. (Submitted)

Like Leadbeater with her piano playing, Keirstead — a father of two and stepfather to two more — keeps himself busy hand-weaving colourful blankets. He’s working on his 50th now.

“And they’re practically all in my family,” he said. “I’m working on one, and have cloth for two more and they are going to be for my great-granddaughters.”

Keirstead said he doesn’t know how he managed to make it past 100 — he never thought about it until it happened — but having a loving family and positive outlook has always helped him.

“I’ve been quite happy at everything,” he said. “I had a wonderful family growing up.”

Leadbeater said she is looking forward to her 102nd birthday this summer and that, “lord willing,” she expects to live to celebrate another one after that. Asked what younger people could do to follow in her footsteps, she offers some simple advice.

“What they should do is, in their own private life they should be happy, and not miserable, but happy and do what they think is right,” she said. “And don’t worry about it.”

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