Centenarian with no time to get old

Professor Henry Atkinson at the dental museum's exhibition.
Professor Henry Atkinson at the dental museum's exhibition.

PLANNING to work until you reach 100? Professor Emeritus Henry Atkinson says it might just be a good way to prolong your life.

Despite turning 100 today, the former surgeon, academic and historian continues to work one day a week at Melbourne University's dental museum. His employment there as an honorary curator is a two-way deal. The university gets the benefit of his rare, encyclopaedic knowledge of old dental instruments, while he enjoys cataloguing them to share with students and others.

''I'm always learning,'' says the British expat who served as a facial surgeon in World War II before moving to Australia in 1953. ''The beauty of being an academic is that, every year, you get new students moving up from one year to the next. They've always got new ideas, so it doesn't give you much time to get old.''

While Professor Atkinson is likely to be the only 100-year-old worker in Australia, experts say he is part of a trend towards more elderly people working into old age. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 102,000 people were working in their 70s, 80s or 90s last year, up from 59,000 a decade earlier.

With the number of 100-year-olds expected to soar from about 2800 now to 78,000 by 2050, professor of ageing at Monash University Colette Browning said Australians should expect to see more people like Professor Atkinson in their workplace.

''I think as a society we need to realise that older people have a lot of expertise and wisdom that is very valuable. A lot of people make assumptions that everything is down hill from about the age of 60, when that's not the case. Many people will age well and want to contribute to society like this man is.''

While most Australians retire in their 60s, Professor Browning said continuing to work in some capacity may help people age well, too. Although genetic factors and lifestyle choices were the greatest predictors of a long and healthy life, she said using your mind and staying social were likely to play a role.

''We know that people who keep their brains active have the potential to age better, but there is also the psychological aspect of feeling like you're needed in the workforce and that you have something to give.''

Professor Atkinson, or ''Atki'', as he is known, said he thought a number of things had contributed to his longevity: playing soccer in his youth and not AFL, ''which is too rough'', growing his own vegetables, keeping a wide range of interests, and remaining socially and intellectually stimulated. ''There's an old saying that if you don't use it, you lose it, and I think that's very true, particularly in relation to your brain power.''

In recent weeks, he has had some interesting reactions to his age, including a bank worker who burst out laughing when she discovered his birth date, but he said he had no plans to retire from the museum, which was named after him in 2006.

''It's been a tremendous amount of fun,'' he told his colleagues at an early birthday party last week.

This story Centenarian with no time to get old first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.