Until he got a bad case of pneumonia five years ago, Ebrahim Sakhai worked in a rug store as a bookkeeper. He was 98 at the time. The now 103-year-old still enjoys making pizza with his daughter-in-law, playing with his Italian greyhound, Shay-toon, and being with his family.

His secret?

"I don't know. I don't know," he said. "God knows. I eat and I sleep. I work and work and work."

Sakhai is part of the fastest-growing segment of the nation's population — centenarians. There are 110 in Utah and more than 50,000 in the nation. Eighty percent are women. Most function independently at least to age 90. They have a history of aging slowly and either avoiding or markedly delaying lethal diseases associated with aging, according to the New England Centenarian Study.

And although a healthy lifestyle and habits can help people become a part of this elite group, genes have a big impact as well, says Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study.

"Centenarians get there because they were lucky in terms of avoiding things that would have killed them younger, by perhaps not smoking, by not being exposed to diseases young, having good health care in middle age, and then when they're older, lacking genes that would predispose them to diseases," Perls said. "At older ages, genes start to become pretty important."

The quality of life of people who make it to 100 is "generally excellent," he said. "Only in the last few years do they experience significant decline in health. And I would gladly trade off two years of relatively poor health for 98 years of good health."

Their health is usually good, Perls said, because "to even get to your mid- to late 80s, you have to have some pretty healthy habits. If you treat the car badly, it's going to run for fewer miles."

Perls' acronym for aging slowly, AGEING, emphasizes the importance of Attitude, Genes, Exercise, Interests, Nutrition, and Getting rid of smoking.

Sakhai's son, Cyrus, said attitude and interests have been key to Ebrahim's longevity and overall health.

"He never stopped working, he doesn't let things bother him, but mostly because he always used his brain."

Ebrahim Sakhai moved to the United States 21 years ago from Iran and took his citizenship test at age 97. He didn't miss a question. He continued his accounting work in a family rug business through his late 90s. He learned five or six languages in his life, said Cyrus, although he has forgotten a lot in the past few years.

"Is good to stay working, you know? If some person don't stay working, he loses a day," Ebrahim Sakhai said.

Janet Cope, the Salt Lake Senior Clinic R.N. coordinator, also mentioned the importance of human interaction for those who want to live longer and higher-quality lives.

"Of course, eating right and getting exercise are two of the most important things, but also not letting themselves be isolated," she said. "One of the biggest concerns with this population is depression. If they're depressed, they don't take their medication, don't eat right. Really involving the family or community is really important."

Ebrahim, whose wife died nine years ago, lives with his son, Cyrus, and daughter-in-law, Nicole.

"I love to be happy with friends and family," he said. "I love to be with them at home."

Since his pneumonia, however, Ebrahim has had decreased mobility, which Cyrus said is a big challenge.

"When you see someone whose mind works and he can't do anything, that's torture," he said.

Ebrahim, who now gets around with the help of a walker, said he mostly misses dancing.

But although he is now limited in what he can do, Cyrus said his father is still "a very happy person. He likes to tell jokes and laugh." He also likes music, company and a shot of cognac every other night.

"He loves being the center of attention," said Nicole. "He just eats it up."

Ebrahim is the second-oldest man in Utah. The oldest man, Yakov Feldman of Salt Lake City, will be 105 in November. Pearl Blain of Roy, Utah's oldest woman, will be 108 in October. Cleo Cranney Hinckley was the oldest woman in Utah until she died two weeks before her 112th birthday last year.

While these centenarians might not be in their peak health, said Perls, it's important that people remember "the older you get, the healthier you've been, which is a positive way of viewing aging."

E-MAIL: achristensen@desnews.com