updated 8/17/2006 9:33:47 PM ET 2006-08-18T01:33:47

Five neighbors at a central Missouri retirement community who are all centenarians get asked all the time: "How did you live to be 100?"

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If you want to live to 100 or more, this rare group of five golden girls says the key to longevity is working hard at a job you love and taking care of your body while you're at it.

Even though an estimated 70,000 people in the country are currently at the century mark or beyond in age, it is unusual to find five 100-year-olds living in one place.

The average life-span of Americans is about two or three years short of an 80th birthday party. And most people don't want to cut out coffee, soda, alcohol, cigarettes and eat healthy.

"People tell me all the time, 'I don't want to live to be 100,'" said Mildred Leaver, who turned 100 in June.

Her four centenarian friends at the Rolla Presbyterian Manor retirement community shook their primped gray heads in agreement. They hear it too: "Who wants to live to be 100?"

"I think that's just sad. Aging is attitude and I don't feel old," said Leaver, a former educator who still drives her Buick around town.

For an idea of just how special this centenarian quintet is, look at Presbyterian Manor's 16 other communities across the Midwest. Only four other residents of the more than 2,000 have lived 100 years or longer — and each lives in four separate retirement communities.

It doesn't take long to see that Leaver and her neighbors Mildred Harris, Grace Wolfson, Gladys Stuart and Viola Semas, have a lot more in common than their longevity and lifelong healthy habits. All are 100 except Stuart, who is 101.

Even though their sight and hearing aren't what they used to be, they've all avoided illnesses that many elderly people are stricken with. It's been 50 years since Leaver beat cancer for the first and only time.

Long careers in common
The common thread that connects these women is the decades of service to jobs each loved as a farmer, designer, school principal, bookkeeper and secretary. In the early years of their lives, gainfully employed women like them were just as rare as 100-year-olds are today.

Wolfson said art and her 25-year career as an aerospace illustrator helped her live 100 years and through the best times in her life.

The immigrant from Budapest, Hungary, who turned 100 this summer, said she's still inspired artistically today. Her art hangs in the retirement community, where a party was held this month in honor of the five women.

Fruits and vegetables
Harris said hard farm work and an abundance of fruits and vegetables in her back yard kept her going. She's also a big advocate for not smoking.

"No tobacco. I watched my husband just cough and cough until it killed him," Harris said.

A long career in bookkeeping kept Semas' life as balanced at the money she managed. Semas said she still loves numbers, especially winning ones on a Bingo chart.

All of the women say life in a retirement community was nothing like what they envisioned.

"They do a really good job of keeping us entertained, active and enjoying life," said Stuart, a retired secretary and the oldest of the five at 101.

Anita Carroll, 50, director of Presbyterian Manor, said the stigma about retirement homes and nursing homes is changing. "People don't come here to die, they come here to live," Carroll said.

When Leaver, the lifelong teacher and school principal moved into the community a few years ago, Carroll instantly recognized her: Leaver was her principal in elementary school.

"You took care of me for all of those years," Carroll told Leaver when she moved in. "Now I'm going to take care of you."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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