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100 is the New 65: Living Longer and Better

(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this arti­cle thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine).

100 is the New 65
– Why do some peo­ple live to 100? Researchers are try­ing to find out, reports Meera Lee Sethi, and they’re dis­cov­er­ing how we might live bet­ter lives, not just longer ones.

Will Clark, 105, recently bought a van for a 5,000-mile road trip across the Midwest with his wife, Lois, who is 102.

Will Clark, 105, recently bought a van for a 5,000-mile road trip across the Mid­west with his wife, Lois, who is 102.

Elsa Brehm Hoff­mann loves bridge and is always ready for a party. Rosa McGee enjoys singing hymns to her­self all day long. Will Clark makes a mean spaghetti and meat­balls. What con­nects these three? They belong to the sin­gle fastest grow­ing seg­ment of the United States pop­u­la­tion: peo­ple over a hun­dred years old.

Hoff­mann, McGee, Clark, and the nearly 100,000 other cen­te­nar­i­ans in the U.S. pro­vide inspi­ra­tion to the rest of us. But they also pro­vide researchers with a tan­ta­liz­ing puz­zle: Why do some peo­ple live so long? For years, med­ical researchers have been study­ing this select group, iden­ti­fy­ing some key fac­tors to a long life. Now, a grow­ing body of research is sug­gest­ing that longevity isn’t just linked to good genes and a healthy lifestyle; it’s also tied to cul­ti­vat­ing a pos­i­tive, resilient atti­tude toward life. These results val­i­date a sim­ple idea: that cen­te­nar­i­ans can teach us how to live not just longer lives, but bet­ter ones.

At the fore of this research is the New Eng­land Cen­te­nar­ian Study (NECS), which has enrolled more than 1,500 cen­te­nar­i­ans from around the world over the past 15 years. The study’s direc­tor, Thomas Perls, says these par­tic­i­pants dis­pel the belief that the older some­one gets, the sicker he or she becomes. Instead, he says, “the older you get, the health­ier you’ve been.” In other words, peo­ple who demon­strate excep­tional longevity tend to have had a life­long his­tory of good health.

Indeed, peo­ple who die in their 70s or 80s are plagued by degen­er­a­tive ill­nesses in the years before their death; in con­trast, Perls has found that nearly two thirds of cen­te­nar­i­ans either delay the onset of dis­eases such as heart dis­ease, stroke, and diabetes—or escape them alto­gether. Plus, a sub­stan­tial pro­por­tion of cen­te­nar­i­ans who sur­vive such age-related ill­nesses do so with­out devel­op­ing phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties, enabling them to remain socially, men­tally, and phys­i­cally active. As a result, in a cul­ture that roman­ti­cizes youth, Perls argues that cen­te­nar­i­ans embody “a thor­oughly opti­mistic view of aging”—one that shows that pro­long­ing life and enjoy­ing it go hand-in-hand.

How do they do it?

To reach 100, research sug­gests that it def­i­nitely helps to have the right genes. Longevity clus­ters in fam­i­lies; Perls has doc­u­mented as many as eight sib­lings in one gen­er­a­tion who lived to 100. He’s also found that the chil­dren of cen­te­nar­i­ans have only one-third the risk of dying from can­cer as the rest of us, and one-sixth the risk of dying from heart dis­ease. Although spe­cific genetic mech­a­nisms behind long life are noto­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to prove, there is some evi­dence that cen­te­nar­i­ans may be less likely to pos­sess spe­cific genetic vari­a­tions that pre­dis­pose peo­ple to prob­lems like car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, dia­betes, and high cho­les­terol. Perls is cur­rently study­ing the entire human genome, search­ing for genetic vari­a­tions asso­ci­ated with other dis­eases that cen­te­nar­i­ans lack, as well as vari­a­tions that may actively pro­mote longevity.

But long life isn’t just a lucky break. Sci­en­tists’ best esti­mate, largely based on a land­mark Swedish study of iden­ti­cal and fra­ter­nal twins, is that genetic fac­tors account for only 20 to 30 per­cent of a person’s lifes­pan. Envi­ron­men­tal and behav­ioral fac­tors dic­tate the other 70 to 80 percent.

Much of what researchers know about how to reach extreme old age sounds like basic pub­lic health advo­cacy: Don’t smoke. Drink in mod­er­a­tion. Eat healthy. Exer­cise reg­u­larly. “What we can do to live longer is no secret,” says Peter Mar­tin, who directs the Geron­tol­ogy Pro­gram at Iowa State Uni­ver­sity and was a key con­trib­u­tor to a study of cen­te­nar­i­ans in Geor­gia, the Geor­gia Cen­te­nar­ian Study, which ran from 1988 to 2006.

But what is new is the grow­ing evi­dence that our per­son­al­i­ties affect our longevity. It’s easy to know what it takes to stay healthy. More dif­fi­cult is believ­ing we have the power to con­trol our lifes­pans, mus­ter­ing the will to make good choices, and sim­ply lov­ing life enough to make long-term invest­ments in our health. “It’s per­son­al­ity,” says Mar­tin, “that turns these things on.”

Though every cen­te­nar­ian is unique—they vary widely in terms of edu­ca­tion, socioe­co­nomic sta­tus, reli­gion, and ethnicity—Martin reports that, as a group, they exhibit a dis­tinct con­stel­la­tion of per­son­al­ity traits. For instance, they tend to dis­play rel­a­tively high lev­els of what psy­chol­o­gists label “competence”—the abil­ity to achieve goals—and “con­sci­en­tious­ness,” or self-discipline. These qual­i­ties may make it eas­ier to fol­low through on the healthy habits the rest of us resolve to keep each New Year’s Eve but aban­don by the end of January.

It’s amaz­ing how cog­nizant they are of the need to exer­cise and not just leave it to chance or nature,” says Lynn Peters Adler, who runs the National Cen­te­nar­ian Aware­ness Project, an advo­cacy group that cel­e­brates the plea­sures and accom­plish­ments of aging. “One woman I know walks a mile every morn­ing, no mat­ter the tem­per­a­ture.” This may sound like a strict and dreary reg­i­men, but Adler notes that there’s an excit­ing rea­son for it: This woman loves hik­ing the Grand Canyon, which she has done nearly a dozen times since her 75th birthday.

Martin’s research sug­gests that cen­te­nar­i­ans also seem to be more inclined to embrace new skills and expe­ri­ences, defy­ing the stereo­type of the elderly as stuck in their ways. Will Clark is liv­ing proof. Now 105, he just acquired his first com­puter, which he uses to email friends and to research authors and golfers in which he’s inter­ested. He’s even taken to Googling fam­ily mem­bers. “I can’t believe the things you can call up on this gad­get,” chuck­les the for­mer den­tist and mil­i­tary man.

Elsa Hoffmann, 102, with her great granddaughters.

Elsa Hoff­mann, 102, with her great granddaughters.

Elsa Hoff­mann, 102, epit­o­mizes two other traits cen­te­nar­i­ans dis­play at rel­a­tively high lev­els: extra­ver­sion and trust. “I love peo­ple and I like to find out their inter­ests in life,” she says. “We get to be inti­mate almost when we meet.” Hoffmann’s sched­ule includes lunch dates, the­ater out­ings, fundrais­ers, shop­ping excur­sions, bridge and gin tour­na­ments, and—every year for the past few years—a cruise with fel­low coun­try club members.

Though she derives bound­less joy from all this social activ­ity, it also hap­pens to be good for her: A con­sid­er­able body of epi­demi­o­log­i­cal research has linked low lev­els of social con­nec­tion with higher risks for mor­tal­ity. (See Jill Suttie’s Greater Good arti­cle this month for more on the cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits of social connection.)

But even when life isn’t all about world travel and intel­lec­tual dis­cov­ery, cen­te­nar­i­ans still seem to have a leg up on the rest of us: Their results on per­son­al­ity tests show that they may be bet­ter equipped to han­dle dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions with­out lit­er­ally wor­ry­ing them­selves to death. Rosa McGee, for instance, has lived through can­cer, the death of her hus­band of 25 years, and a foot con­di­tion that ren­ders her essen­tially home­bound. Yet her daugh­ter Clara Jean describes her per­son­al­ity sim­ply as “sweet­ness. She never fusses, never argues, never com­plains. It’s a con­tent­ment that is beautiful.”

Indeed, research also shows that cen­te­nar­i­ans are more likely than younger adults to engage in “cog­ni­tive cop­ing,” using men­tal strate­gies to tackle dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions. Mar­tin says he has seen cen­te­nar­i­ans take a vari­ety of approaches to com­bat­ing stress and neg­a­tive emo­tions. Some write poetry about the lone­li­ness of old age or the mis­ery of ill­ness; oth­ers replace lost phys­i­cal pur­suits with men­tal ones, like read­ing, or take com­fort in deep reli­gious beliefs.

None of these cop­ing strate­gies are par­tic­u­larly inno­v­a­tive. But Perls, Mar­tin, and their col­leagues argue that they can add up to a lifetime’s worth of healthy stress-management. Cen­te­nar­ian research shows that avoid­ing anx­ious or neu­rotic behav­ior may not only help us increase our lifes­pans but bet­ter enjoy those extra years.

A higher bar for aging

Given how “fan­tas­ti­cally well” he has seen his study par­tic­i­pants doing in the later stages of their lives, Perls is frus­trated by what he sees as our culture’s obses­sion with youth. He laments the fact that “we have an entire indus­try that tries to stop aging—it’s all nonsense.”

Leonard Poon, who heads the Geor­gia Cen­te­nar­ian Study and is a pro­fes­sor of pub­lic health and psy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Geor­gia, says it’s not just pop­u­lar cul­ture but politi­cians who are short-sighted in this regard. Poon bemoans the lack of con­gres­sional sup­port for the fields of geron­tol­ogy and geri­atrics. “The White House Con­fer­ence on Aging is held every 10 years to get grass­roots rec­om­men­da­tions,” explains Poon. “In the last one, Pres­i­dent Bush did not show up.”

Their lack of polit­i­cal clout is ironic; in his inter­views with cen­te­nar­i­ans, Mar­tin has found that many are acutely inter­ested in pol­i­tics, and love dis­cussing issues like the national debt. He says this vig­or­ous involve­ment in com­mu­nity life is a joy that old age shares with youth.

But there are also new joys that take shape as one gets older. There is, for instance, the plea­sure of what Mar­tin calls “weav­ing your own life story and mak­ing sense of why we’re here.” It’s a plea­sure that McGee clearly enjoys when she talks about her role orches­trat­ing a year’s sup­ply of food for a church in Mex­ico, and that Hoff­mann feels when she fixes bro­ken toys for her great-grandchildren and speaks to ele­men­tary school­child­ren about her life’s expe­ri­ences. And there is, still, the plea­sure of explo­ration. Clark rev­eled in it recently, when he bought a van and went on a 5,000-mile road trip across the Mid­west with his wife, her­self 102.

Ris­ing life expectancy rates mean that most of us will live longer than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. What remains in ques­tion is the qual­ity of life we’ll have at 80, 90, or 100. Mar­tin con­tends that the answer lies in the atti­tude we cul­ti­vate in our younger years. “Imag­ine that you’re 95,” he says. “You can’t see, you can’t hear, you’re lonely and depen­dent on other people—and it’s because of the anx­ious, dis­agree­able atti­tude you had all your life.”

On the other hand, he says, devel­op­ing a pos­i­tive atti­tude towards life while we’re young, though chal­leng­ing at times, can set us up to be happy, healthy, and inde­pen­dent in old age.

In other words, aging well isn’t just a project for the elderly. It’s some­thing we can work toward our entire lives.

For our par­ents, the stan­dard was aging grace­fully,” says Adler. “The bar has been raised. Let’s aspire instead to age excellently.”

– Meera Lee Sethi is a Chicago-based free­lance writer who reports on cur­rent issues in bio­med­i­cine, pub­lic health, social psy­chol­ogy, and neu­ro­science. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor for Utata.org. Copy­right Greater Good. Greater Good Mag­a­zine, based at UC-Berkeley, is a quar­terly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.

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