John and Ruby Hills posed for this portrait while John was in the Navy in 1943, two years after their marriage. (Photo courtesy Sue Reed / July 5, 2012)

John and Ruby Hill are still an item. Even though they are both 100 years old and have been married for 71 years, their bond remains fresh, accented with sweet, not-so-subtle notes of flirtatiousness.

Asked how they hooked up in 1941, John, born in Arkansas on April 18, 1912, about the time of the Titanic disaster, had a ready response.

"She was huntin' a boy," he said plainly, not taking his eyes off his bride, born 22 days after her mate in rural Kentucky.

This pointed accusation drew a burst of feigned ire. "I don' know what you're talkin' about," she pleaded, shooting him a long, lingering glance from her wheelchair.

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The bright, affectionate repartee took place early one morning inside their cozy third-floor apartment at Vantage House, an assisted-living center in Columbia, where the couple has lived for the past 10 years.

John and Ruby met in New York City. He was working in the hotel business; she was a secretary to oil baron Winthrop Rockefeller. Their first date was to the top of the Empire State Building.

"She was just a city girl trying to show me New York," John recalled. "We had a lot in common. We both liked to travel."

Their wedding took place on Feb. 1, 1941 in Manhattan, at the Church of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal parish famously known as "The Little Church Around the Corner." Their honeymoon was spent across the Hudson River in New Jersey. "We went deep-sea fishing," she recalled, and "we got sick. Might as well tell the truth!"

"We got seasick," he nodded, carefully taking a tissue from a box, reaching over and handing it to her. "We had to lay down inside the boat until we got home."

The Hills worked in Toledo, Ohio, until retiring at age 60, he from the federal government, she from her job selling properties. After retirement, said daughter Sue Reed, 67, they moved to Leisure World, a senior community in Silver Spring, and in 2002, to Vantage House, in Columbia.

Her parents didn't retreat from life once they stopped drawing paychecks, Reed said. At Leisure World, they regularly attended services at an interfaith chapel and her father played golf regularly until the 1980s. "And they went on at least one cruise a year," Reed added.

Centenarians more numerous

There are more centenarians around than at any time in U.S. history, although they are still not common. According to the Census Bureau's 2010 head count, there were 53,364 people in the United States who were at least 100 years old, including 9,162 men.

How many of those 100-year-olds are married to fellow centenarians is unknown.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, Howard County's health officer, said he did not know the Hills and had only heard of one other instance where both married partners had reached 100.

"It's certainly not common," he said. However, he added it will become more common as more and more people kick smoking, lose weight and exercise more. Medical care has also improved dramatically, he noted, with gerontology "becoming a burgeoning field."

Another important predictor of longevity, Beilenson believes, centers on having stable relationships. "Having companionship and a good, long-term marriage clearly benefits both mental and physical health," Beilenson said.

Reed, who spends much of her time behind the wheel of her van driving her parents to doctor appointments — her dad had cataract surgery just last month — said that overall, their health is stable.

Yet while she believes that genetics play a role in determining life span, Reed, like Beilenson, also believes there is a larger, more mysterious force at work here. "It is my theory that their love for each other has kept them alive," she declared.

Then, turning to her mom, she asked, "Don't you think your love for each other kept you going?"