She's a gene genie

  • Article by: KATY READ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 1, 2012 - 12:21 PM

... and a fitness fanatic and cancer survivor. Read one woman's amazing life story.

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Vivian Hempel, 98 years old, worked out at Curves in St. Paul using a 4.5 pound hula hoop.

Photo: Joey Mcleister, Dml -

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Vivian Hempel likes to keep active. She works out for 45 minutes three times a week, line dances weekly and tends a large community garden as well as her own landscaped lawn.

Not that different from many other active adults. Except that Vivian Hempel is 98 years old.

"I'm never sick, I never have a cold," she said. "Oh, my back bothers me. I have other little aches and so on." She takes only one medication -- a pill prescribed when doctors installed a pacemaker a few years ago over her mild objections, as she had experienced no serious heart problems.

It's also worth noting that she has also survived breast cancer and a fractured hip, but she mentions these almost as an afterthought. It's not that she's absentminded; she simply treats them as minor setbacks, pushed aside in favor of more interesting topics.

Chatting at her neighborhood Curves Fitness Center in St. Paul, where she has earned a star on the wall for performing 1,000 workouts, Hempel talks about exercise, food, family and life with an animation that suggests unflagging enthusiasm, her conversation punctuated by laughter and the occasional "Oh! You have to see this!"

She skips around among experiences spanning almost a century, describing her years growing up, one of five children in a two-room Wisconsin farmhouse with no electricity, as vividly as she does a conversation with a neighbor yesterday or a party the previous week. For additional details, she reaches into a canvas tote filled with photos, newspaper clippings, greeting cards and notebooks containing meticulous logs of the jelly she has canned and the cross-country ski outings taken as far back as the 1970s.

At one point, for example, she pulls out an envelope on which she has recorded the nightly readings from the pedometer she wears clipped to her sock at all times.

"Every night when I go to bed, if I see that [its last digits are] not at 00, then I run in place in the bathroom until I can make it 00," she said.

If one person's experiences were enough to prove that healthy habits ensure a long and vigorous life, Hempel would be the toast of the medical community. Through a mix of wise choices, natural inclination and random chance, she seems to have followed just about every bit of standard advice on living to a healthy old age -- and has achieved impressive results. Of course anecdotal evidence only goes so far, and not everybody is equally lucky. But to some extent, Hempel has created her own luck.

Her first bit of luck was to inherit good genes. Longevity runs in her family, at least among the women: Hempel's mother lived to be 90, one sister 98, and the other is still going at 96. Her brothers died in their 50s and 60s, but Hempel attributes this to poor nutrition, noting one brother's consumption of too much red meat and disapprovingly recounting the time the other skipped breakfast and then ordered pancakes for lunch.

"What kind of meal is that?" she said. "Everybody I know -- neighbors, relatives, friends, my own husband -- everybody I know died because of the food they ate."

She's not about to make the same mistake. Her diet is founded on an impressive store of up-to-date nutrition information combined with old-fashioned moderation. Her other habits, too, are as healthful as if she had carefully shaped them around the latest research -- she's a fan of TV health guru Dr. Mehmet Oz and a longtime subscriber to Prevention magazine -- but they mostly seem to spring from natural enthusiasms. She has always enjoyed biking, gardening, skiing. She loves wine, but limits herself to a tiny glass before dinner, mixed with fruit juice. She watches only a few hours of TV a week, keeps up with events via Reader's Digest and the newspaper, and enjoys stretching her mind with crossword puzzles and the daily scrambled-word Jumble. She describes herself as a cheerful person.

"You have to keep happy," she said. "I just look at all the good things."

Her husband died 18 years ago and her son and grandsons live in Indiana, but she spends time with friends and neighbors. Her sessions at Curves and line dancing at the community center offer not only physical movement but the social interaction doctors say is critical to a good health.

And if it's good for Vivian Hempel to interact with others, others also benefit from the example she sets.

Sue Ungewitter, owner of Hempel's neighborhood Curves, stated simply: "She's our guiding light."

Hempel puts it more modestly. "They all say I'm something, to keep going," she said.

Katy Read • 612-673-4583

  • IT'S ALL ABOUT THE FOOD

    "Everybody I know died because of the food they ate." So what does Vivian Hempel put on her plate?

    She expounds on the virtues of exotic grains like quinoa and amaranth, the three kinds of oatmeal she buys at the co-op, the legumes and twice weekly fish, her chili recipe that's mostly vegetables, her careful limitations on meat and sugar, her avoidance of processed foods, her vitamins and fish-oil capsules, her attention to foods containing omega-3 fatty acids.

    "And red-leaf lettuce -- never iceberg, no way!"

    So does she have any vices at all?

    "My only downfall," she said, "is Breyers mint chocolate chip [ice cream]."

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