Secrets of the Super Old
Hitting triple digits isn’t as hard as it used to be; centenarians are now the fastest-growing
segment of the US population. But while experts may disagree on what accounts
for this increase among our most senior of citizens, living all your years in health
and happiness is something you can do something about—starting now.
In 1893 Thomas Edison built the world’s first movie studio in West Orange, New Jersey. Grover Cleveland became President of the United States. The first college basketball game took place and the first numbered license plates appeared. Peter Tchaikovsky died; Omar Bradley and Lillian Gish were born...as were Yone Minagawa, Edna Parker, Maria de Jesus, Helen Stetter, Bertha Fry and Florence Finch.
As of 2007 you can download movies from the Internet, half the country fixates on the NCAA basketball tournament each March and both Bradley and Gish have been gone for years. But Minagawa and the others are very much alive (as of this writing, at least) and if they are all still with us by the time of Finch’s birthday on December 22, they will all be 114 years old. As supercentenarians, or people aged 110 and older, these ladies are in rare company; there are no more than an estimated 450 of these individuals worldwide, and only about 80 whose ages have been validated by official documentation.
While the super old remain members of a pretty exclusive club, the number of centenarians—people who make it to the century mark—keeps going up, with 50,454 accounted for in the last US census. What’s more, nearly half of today’s 65-year-olds can expect to reach age 85, compared with only 13% of those who turned 65 in 1900. These are just the most notable examples of an overall increase in American life expectancy, which hit an all-time high of 77.2 years in 2003.
And so the question arises: Why are people living longer, in many cases to age 100 and beyond?
The first step in attaining great age is to avoid the sicknesses that kill most people well before their 100th birthdays. “Supercentenarians escape from heart disease, cancer and stroke,” says medical researcher L. Stephen Coles, MD, PhD, cofounder of the Gerentology Research Group.
People who don’t make it that far, even those who reach a full century, aren’t as lucky. For example, a British study of more than 13,000 people showed that those who get past 95 run a 58% risk of dying with dementia, versus a 6% risk for those who die between the ages of 65 and 69.
Besides fighting the major causes of mortality in terms of disease, scientists are examining the aging process itself for clues to increased longevity; as the authors of one report put it, “The most fundamental question, yet unanswered, is whether there is a specific mechanism or gene that controls aging, or if aging is instead the result of multiple basic mechanisms.” The error factor is one angle; in this set of theories, slipups caused by everything from DNA mishaps to free-radical damage eventually cause bodily activity to go awry. Genetics is another hot topic; according to various gene-based scenarios, these packets of cell-function code may determine the rate at which aging occurs via such mechanisms as hormonal activity or immune function.
One thing that seems to help you live a long time is being born female; one of every 50 women will live to 100 versus one of every 200 men. “It could be due to estrogen, but we have no way to prove that,” Coles says. “In the past 100 years the women who died prematurely during childbirth don’t die that way anymore, so they live longer.” He believes that genetics is a key longevity factor, with the split running about “80% in the genes and 20% in the environment. All of our subjects have parents or siblings who are long-lived.” (Coles and other researchers have created a foundation to gather DNA samples from these remarkable people; see www.supercentenarian-research-foundation.org.)
But even a longevity theory that leans towards genetics does leave room for controllable factors, and some authorities believe the environmental aspects predominate. Take female longevity; women may live longer simply because they tend to take better care of themselves. Or as Eric Plasker, DC, author of The 100 Year Lifestyle (Adams Media), puts it: “Men tend to wait for the crisis.” And that’s just part of the problem: “One of the challenges is that we are set up for a 60- to 70-year lifestyle, not a 100-year lifestyle,” Plasker says. “Many people who have lived this long were blindsided by this longevity—they didn’t plan to do it.”
The dilemma of outliving one’s health is a problem that has forced its way into public consciousness, especially among baby boomers who are watching their own parents and grandparents age. “These people are looking at their elders and saying, ‘I don’t want to be like that,’” Plasker says. “None of the ailing people who are 100 today wanted to get that way, either—they just never died.”
Plasker’s answer is to plan for a full century of living. “That’s what makes the 100-year lifestyle unique—it defines such a lifestyle as living a quantity of quality years,” he says. “What’s more, every choice that you make today that will help you at 100 will also help you now.”
What might a 100-year life look like? In a survey of healthy century-olds, 23% credited faith and spiritual care for their longevity, along with a good diet, not smoking and family bonds (one advantage: getting to know your great-grandchildren). Most had no regrets about their lives, and only 4% feared death. The extremely old also seem to share a certain lightheartedness; both Yone Minagawa and Helen Stetter have been known to give away candy.
One thing these folks may have in common, in Plasker’s view, is an ability to tap into what he calls “innate intelligence”; your body knows what it needs but sometimes you’re simply not listening to it. “The people that tend to suffer through aging typically have this healthcare hierarchy—do nothing to take care of yourself and then go into crisis,” he says.
Living for Longevity
The best way to employ your body’s own intelligence is through a “healthcare hierarchy of self-care, then health care and then crisis care,” according to Plasker. “Self-care includes the things that you need to do for yourself—no one can put the right food in your mouth, exercise for you or manage your relationships.” Health care includes all those times you consult a professional for help, from asking a trainer about a fitness program to having regular checkups. The idea is to put off crisis care—the kind of calamities that often lead to hospital stays—for as long as possible.
A health crisis can motivate you to exercise, but that isn’t the best reason to do so. “Cardiovascular exercise (any activity, like running, that gets your pulse going) is very important to keep your heart and lungs healthy, eliminate stress, and strengthen your immune system,” says Plasker. Cardio exercise increases your endurance, while weight training increases your strength—and can help fend off both the extra fat that harms the heart and the age-related muscle loss that causes weakness and fragility.
Calorie restriction—cutting portions to lengthen lifespan—has worked in animals, but it isn’t a popular option; “Eating less can add years to one’s life but most people aren’t willing to undergo it,” says Coles. One supplement, resveratrol, appears to mimic calorie restriction, and thus shows great promise as an anti-aging aid.
While Coles leans towards genetics as the basis for longevity he does suggest covering your bases through supplementation. His favorites? “Number one would be fish oil; I take two 1,000 mg capsules every day. The second would be a multivitamin that covers a spectrum of nutrients, including minerals. The third would be calcium for strong bones, combined with vitamin D for greater absorption.” His other recommendations include:
• Antioxidants, among them vitamins C and E, selenium, alpha lipoic acid and Pycnogenol
• Soy lecithin to maintain healthy cell membranes
• Chromium picolinate to boost blood-sugar control by improving insulin sensitivity
• Coenzyme Q10, a key player in cellular energy production
Aging is associated with reduced immune function, so scientists are studying ways to boost immunity in an effort to stave off the diseases associated with age. The hormone melatonin, best known for promoting healthy sleep, has been found to bolster immune-cell production, as have several types of mushrooms, including reishi and shiitake.
Just as important as what you feed your body is what you feed your mind: Coles and Plasker both recommend cultivating optimism and a purpose in life. “If you ask yourself ‘What’s wrong with me?’ the question can’t lead anywhere good,” Plasker says. “But if you ask ‘Where can I find the blessing in this challenge?’ you can make progress.” Embrace new experiences: Have you always wanted to surf the breakers off Maui? Tour the Napa Valley? Rescue abandoned animals? Become a champion ballroom dancer? Help start an afterschool center in your community? Having a goal—or a set of goals—can help give you something to live for.
“Being passionate about your life is the key to mastering your life,” says Plasker. So set your course for a 100-year journey and remember: Living the healthy, vibrant existence you’ve always dreamed of will in itself be worth the trip.