George Burns' Secret To A Long And Happy Life

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One of 12 children, Nathan Birnbaum was born in 1896 to a poor family in New York (per The Washington Post). After changing his name to George Burns, the cigar-chomping vaudevillian spent more than 70 years in show biz — acting, dancing, singing, writing, and telling jokes (even appearing as a guest star on "The Muppet Show"). He was married to fellow comedian Gracie Allen from 1926 until her death in 1964, and the team of Burns and Allen was one of Hollywood's most successful comedy duos.

"Without Gracie, I was nothing," he told The Washington Post in 1988. Though ostensibly he was speaking about their comedy career, he also seemed to be alluding to their long and happy marriage. At the time, he was 92 and promoting his bestselling book "Gracie: A Love Story."

Somehow, despite losing the love of his life, Burns found a way to carry on for several more decades. He dated other women but never remarried. He drove until he was 93, and he still gave interviews — cracking jokes non-stop — at age 98 to publications such as Cigar Aficionado. He died in 1996 at 100 years old. Factors such as being optimistic and living near nature are sometimes linked to living longer, and "super seniors" are often asked about their secrets to keeping healthy. So what was Burns' secret to living such a long and happy life?

George Burns often cracked jokes about his longevity

George Burns wrote in his 1983 book "How to Live to Be 100 — Or More," "This book is dedicated to the widows of my last six doctors" (via The New York Times). In this "ultimate diet and exercise book," Burns included practical advice such as keeping one's mind active, exercising regularly, walking everywhere, and maintaining a positive attitude. "If you ask what is the single-most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress, and tension," he wrote (via Men's Health). "And if you didn't ask me, I'd still have to say it."

He also recommended being around young people as much as possible, to soak up their energy and enthusiasm: "As they get older, too many people tend to hang around with each other and compare ailments and gravy stains." In his '90s interview with Cigar Aficionado, Burns outlined a daily routine that included eating a dish of prunes, walking around his pool for exercise, drinking martinis, smoking cigars, and socializing with friends and family. He said, "I find you have to take each day as it comes and be thankful for who's left and whatever you can still do."

The comedian loved smoking cigars

One thing George Burns never did for his health was give up smoking cigars. "Today I smoke about 10 cigars when I'm not working and 15 when I am working," he revealed to Cigar Aficionado, while puffing away on a cigar, two years before his death. He explained that he was partial to the cheaper domestic cigars, which stayed lit longer than the pricier cigars from Cuba and therefore worked better as props while on stage. "If I'd taken my doctor's advice and quit smoking when he advised me to, I wouldn't have lived to go to his funeral," the actor quipped.

In a 1979 interview with legendary film critic Roger Ebert, Burns wisecracked, "What's my secret? Drinking martinis, smoking cigars, going out with young girls and eating everything you want to eat providing you don't have to cut it with a knife. Why young girls? I'd go out with women my own age, but there are no women my age."

His secret was to avoid retiring

George Burns was content to work in show business until the end, only canceling shows after a fall at age 98 (per The New York Times). "The happiest people I know are the ones that are still working. The saddest are the ones who are retired," he told Cigar Aficionado.

In his book "How to Live to Be 100 — Or More," he wrote about the importance of continuing to work and to try new things. "To me the biggest danger of retirement is what it can do to your attitude. When you have all that time on your hands, you think old, you act old. It's a mistake. I see people who, the minute they get to be 65, start rehearsing to be old," he shared.

In contrast, Burns always pushed himself. He became a dramatic actor at age 79, in "The Sunshine Boys," and won an Oscar for his performance. He played God at 81 in "Oh, God!" and its two sequels. Then, at 84, he recorded a country song: "I Wish I Was 18 Again." "When people get a little older they are frightened to make a change in their lives. It's easier to stay in that same safe rut. To me that challenge is exciting," he wrote in his book. "Some of the things I didn't want to do turned out to be the best things I ever did."