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A 101-year-old former CEO shared his longevity advice: Early retirement is 'stultifying,' and the Mediterranean diet is best

A centenarian sitting in a winged armchair in his living room.
I. Roy Cohen shared his secrets to longevity.Courtesy of the author.
  • I. Roy Cohen celebrated his 101st birthday in October.

  • The former CEO said his ambition and projects in retirement had led to a longer life.

  • His health tips include eating fresh fish and vegetables, and he walks circuits around his home daily.

When I. Roy Cohen was born in 1922, his parents' farmhouse had no running water or electricity. A wood stove in the kitchen heated the entire property, and there was an outhouse for a toilet.

"It was tough from day to day," Cohen, a second-generation immigrant to New York, told Business Insider.

But his upbringing motivated him to aim high.

"I remember carrying buckets of water to the chicken coops, one in each hand," he said. "It was cold. 'I'm not going to live this way all my life,' I said to myself."

Cohen, who attended a one-room schoolhouse, received a scholarship to an agricultural college — "The only thing it didn't cover was board and lodging," he said — where he earned a bachelor's in microbiology and a master's in biochemistry and nutrition.

A black and white photo of a little boy sitting on a rock at a farm.
Cohen had a basic childhood on a farm with no electricity or running water.Courtesy of I. Roy Cohen.

A pharmaceutical company hired him at a salary of $3,900 a year. He got married, had three children, and became the CEO of another pharmaceutical firm.

Now 101 years old and still in his home, he's in good health. He manages his finances, oversees renovations, and is interested in philosophy.

"I keep in shape, mentally and physically," he said.

He said he'd learned a series of longevity lessons over the decades and shared some with BI.

Be ambitious

Cohen said he "came from zero" to become a CEO.

The centenarian took risks in his career, such as pivoting from research to a role in advertising at his first drug company, despite having no experience in the latter.

Cohen spent his 55-year career at three companies, culminating in his role as CEO.

A black and white image of a couple wearing a shirt and tie and a dark, sleeveless dress.
Cohen with his wife, Joan, at a work function in the 1960s.Courtesy of I. Roy Cohen.

He traveled the world — for business and pleasure — before retiring at 81.

"The idea of early retirement is horrible to me," he said of working almost six decades. "It's stultifying."

He said the secret to a fulfilling career — and longevity in general — included stepping out of your comfort zone.

"If you want something badly enough, if you feel something's not right and you need a change, you'll find a way," he added.

Work at relationships

Cohen, who had seven brothers and sisters, said he learned to "get along with other people," often out of necessity.

His childhood revolved around relationships with his siblings.

"You have no choice but to figure out how to stay stable," he said. "If you live with a whole bunch of other people, you can't carry on wildly and selfishly as if you're the only person in the family."

His first marriage was annulled after less than a year. It was sad, he said, but the experience helped him reconsider the idea of a life partner.

An older couple poses with their heads close together.
Cohen and his wife, Joan, had 3 children and 6 grandchildren together.Courtesy of I. Roy Cohen

"I was cautious about making that commitment again," he said, adding that he found "the right woman" in his second wife, Joan, a teacher, who died six years ago at 83.

"It took a while to adjust to each other, but, like all things, you have to work at it," Cohen said. "It's no good if you head down a negative pathway without communicating properly."

He urged younger people to do the same. "You should keep an open mind and listen to the other person's point of view."

Follow the Mediterranean Diet and walk daily

Cohen thinks his longevity has a genetic element. His father and mother died at 86 and 90, respectively.

Still, he said there were some simple rules he'd followed throughout his life.

The 101-year-old, who said his only health issues were prostate-related, is a devotee of the Mediterranean diet, popular among wealthy executives like Jeff Bezos, who famously ate "breakfast octopus." Biohacking tech millionaire Bryan Johnson also follows aspects of the diet, and sells his own "longevity" olive oil.

While the diet is beloved by wealthy longevity-seekers, it features relatively accessible ingredients that are easy to prepare. Cohen avoids processed foods and meat in favor of fresh fish, vegetables, and olive oil.

"If I want a snack, I'll munch on a piece of cauliflower, a carrot, or a red pepper," Cohen said. "I eat a lot of cabbage and salad."

He said he'd long incorporated fitness into his life, starting with his work on the farm.

A black and white photo of a couple lying on a blanket with their baby boy.
Cohen with his wife and their first child, David, now 63.Courtesy of I. Roy Cohen.

"I used a pitchfork to throw bundles of hay onto the wagon and into the barn," he recalled. "You're lifting a chunk of hay over your head, and it's very difficult."

These days, his exercise regimen involves 20 minutes of leg exercises while sitting on the bed every morning. He also walks "circuits" around his open-plan kitchen and living room. "I do at least 60 every day."

Keep your brain agile

The centenarian said he was sorting paperwork to prepare his tax return for the accountant to submit in April.

"I keep track of all my finances," he said. "I tackle all the details before they before they even come up.

"It keeps my mind in shape."

He said he "constantly has a project on the go." Most recently, he had the driveway and roof of his house redone and installed lighting in the trees.

"Being busy keeps me happy," Cohen said.

He said it was important to nurture a positive attitude with age.

"People allow things that are not that important to drag them down," he said. "But you can't allow yourself to be angry or jealous all the time."

He also said spirituality had helped steer him through life.

"It doesn't have to be organized religion, but it's important to try at least to figure out what makes the world tick."

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