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Anna Stoehr has absolutely no explanation for how she got to be 111 1/2.
"For goodness sake, I don't have an answer to a question like that. I did nothing," Stoehr said as she sat in her farmhouse kitchen, her arthritic hands punctuating the air with emphasis. "And it's not luck, either. It's all in the Lord's hands."
Born of German immigrant parents in Iowa and living on farms her entire life, Stoehr is the world's 40th-oldest person and 15th-oldest in the United States, according to the Gerontology Research Group. And she may be the oldest woman in the world who lives alone.
She laughs often, asks probing questions, moves through the house with her cane when she remembers it, cooks, bakes, quilts and plays 500, checkers and Scrabble with frequent visitors to the house, 15 miles north of Rochester.
"Sometimes people say, 'Well, you're working too hard.' It's not work if you like it. I like keeping busy, doing things," she said. "People can waste a lot of time fretting about things that are best left to the Lord."
Last year, when a researcher called her and pressed for an answer to her long life, "I told him it was probably all those lard sandwiches I ate growing up. It took him a while to realize I was pulling his leg -- although I did eat them, and I still like bacon and eggs. And potatoes, lots of potatoes."
Although her hearing is good, her eyesight is not as sharp, so she uses a magnifying glass to read books and the daily Rochester Post-Bulletin.
For the past several years, Stoehr has talked about moving to an assisted-living apartment in nearby Plainview, said her son, Harlan.
"We keep thinking, well, maybe this year. But then Mom will say she's not quite ready," he said. "Some people tell us we should insist. We know there's some risk, but it's a risk she wants to take. Heck, she's 111. So far, I'd say she's handled her risk pretty well."
Stoehr fits many of the research findings about "supercentenarians" -- those 110 and older: She has an optimistic outlook, a good sense of humor, no life-threatening diseases, a thin body frame, stays active and has frequent contact with her family and friends.
"But there's not so many friends left,'' she said. "I'm the oldest one left around. Heck, I'm about the oldest one anywhere."
Born Anna Rott on Oct. 15, 1900 -- a month before President William McKinley defeated Williams Jennings Bryan a second time -- Stoehr cast her first presidential vote in 1928, for Democrat Al Smith, the first of a long string of losing candidates.
"Well, at least you can't blame all the bad stuff on me," she said.
"Only one of my men ever got elected." That was Dwight Eisenhower.
She was the second of 11 children, the oldest girl. The family moved to a farm in Wisconsin when she was 1, back to Iowa at age 3, then to South Dakota at 7 before moving to Winona County when she was 18, then Potsdam at age 26.
The next year, she married Ernest Stoehr at Immanuel Lutheran Church, a half-mile down the road, where she still attends weekly. He died in 1998.
She had five children, and like many women who live very long lives, she bore most of them in her 30s and 40s. Two of them died last June, including son Melvin, who had a heart attack while sitting at her kitchen table, playing cards.
"Life has sadness and life has joy," she said, recalling that loss. "Sometimes it's very hard, but God knows what he's doing. I may not always understand, but He does."
Genes or lifestyle
Researchers know that the average lifespan for Americans rose from about 45 to 80 over the past 100 years largely because of improved nutrition, safer water, control of childhood diseases, development of antibiotics and other medical treatments.
"But we're still working on why a very select few get to be 100, and even fewer make it to 110," said Dr. Thomas Perls, who studies about 1,600 people in their 100s as head of the New England Centenarian Study.
In the United States, about one in 6,000 people reach 100. Only one in 7 million make it to 110.
"We have clues. You start with a genetic predisposition, but that's maybe only 30 percent of the reason," he said. "The rest seems to be lifestyle -- diet, medical care, social contacts, maybe attitudes you learned growing up, avoiding accidents and probably more things we're puzzling out."
The very, very old often escape major illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, and some -- like Stoehr -- seem to have no dementia.
But even she is making a few adjustments for old age.
A month ago, Stoehr's children persuaded her to accept help from Peggy Veith, a home aide who visits on Tuesday and Friday mornings -- "to clean the high places, the places I can't reach," Stoehr explained.
And for the past three winters, her daughter, Lois Neighbors, has traveled from Iowa to spend three months with her.
"We both like to quilt, and after my husband died, I thought it would be fun to do that together," Neighbors said. "You can tell Mom is getting older, though. Last winter she no longer crawled around the living room floor with me, laying out the quilt squares."
To cope with her arthritis, Stoehr also has adjusted how she does her frequent baking of bread and coffee cake for herself and church bazaars. She puts her mixing bowl on a chair instead of on the kitchen table, so she can knead by pushing down.
"Mom will say something is getting harder, " Neighbors said, "but she never says she can't do it anymore. She never quits."
Stoehr takes it all in stride.
"People try to make a big thing out of my being so old," she said. "Well, I'm just a normal person living a normal life. There's nothing special about me. Well, I guess except that I'm still here for some reason."
Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253