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'Mama Bird' Flies High

(As reported 2/23/99)
For Evelyn Johnson, safety comes first. ThatÂ's why sheÂ's been able to live as long as she has, doing what she does. And what Evelyn does is fly, CBS News Correspondent John Roberts reports.

"Flying is fantastic," she said. "You get up there and you see this whole world, so beautiful, and in my opinion, you couldnÂ't be up there and not believe in God. Somebody had to create it."

Evelyn is known as "mama bird" around the Morristown Municipal Airport - which, by the way, she runs.

"IÂ've been the airport manager here for 46 years, but IÂ've been teaching people to fly for 52 years. And IÂ've been flying for 54 years," she said.

SheÂ's in the Guinness Book of Records for the most number of hours flown by a woman. SheÂ's been honored as flight instructor of the year and is still considered one tough bird when it comes to certifying new pilots.

This year, Evelyn will be 90. And she aims to one day to be the oldest person to ever fly an aircraft.

"IÂ'd like to do it at a hundred, up to a hundred, but, you know, the FAA, they would really crawl under something if I even thought about doing it at a hundred," she said. "As long as I can pass the physical, IÂ'd love to."

ThereÂ's no question that some people are genetically programmed to live a longer life. But major studies on aging have suggested that genes donÂ't play that big a role, and that most of us have what it takes to make it to our 80s, 90s and beyond. The key, say researchers, is to stay active, both physically and mentally.

"Aging is an opportunity, itÂ's not a curse," said Dr. Thomas Perls of the Beth Israel Medical Center.

Perls is conducting one of the worldÂ's largest studies of centenarians. In his new book, Living To One Hundred, Perls says people who can find new challenges and weather the emotional storms of growing older have the best chance at long life.

"I think that kind of attitude fits into the centenarian personality of really, a go-get attitude. DonÂ't let things get you down," Perls said.

EvelynÂ's life has had its share of bad weather. She has lost two husbands, her parents and her siblings. But each time, her love of altitude has helped her attitude to soar.

"I donÂ't have time to get lonely. IÂ'm busy. When you are busy, you donÂ't have time to get lonely," she said.

SheÂ's passing along that spirit to younger students like 71-year-old Betty Gay Blanc, who recently lost her husband, brother and son and is herself battling breast cancer.

Flying, Blanc said, was a form of therapy for her and "also just keeping those goals out there."

And that, say researchers, could be the biggest secret to successful aging. Setting goals, keeping the mind alive. A positive approach to life produces healthy behavior that might even prevent age-related diseases.

"IÂ'm sure I donÂ't feel any older than I did at 45 or 50," Evely Johnson said. "I really enjoy living. ThatÂ's why I want to live to be 100."

And with an attitude like that, "mama bird" may just make it.

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