Getting on the Road to a Long Life: Secrets of the Very Old
A centenarian living today saw eighteen presidents serve the United States
through two World Wars, the civil rights and womensí liberation movements and
the rise and eventual fall of Communism. If he worked on a farm, he saw the
progression from horses to tractors, and a Model T tooted its way down the
street. He is older than the Empire State Building, bubble gum and Mickey Mouse.
Can you image what you would get to see if you lived till 100? Houses on Mars?
Flying cars? Your great-great grandchildren? Well, thereís no magic formula that
can help you expand the limits of human age (not yet anyway), but you do have
some control over your maximum life span.
"The average person has the ability to reach about 88." says Thomas Perls, MD,
MPH, Director of the New England Centenarian Study, "but thereís a great deal of
variation around that with the average person falling short about 10 years."
Reaching 88 is one thing, but in the 2000 census, over 50,000 Americans reported
being a centenarian, 100-years-old or more. And this part of the population is
the fastest growing in the United States. All these people must have done
something right to keep their minds and bodies going strong for all those years.
The New England Centenarian Study took a look at these very senior citizens to
see what they had in common.
Good Genes To Power Your Motor
Extreme old age is very much connected to your genes. In one family involved in
the study, for example, five out of nine siblings lived till at least 100 years
of age. This family likely carried a genetic predisposition that lowered their
risk of cardiovascular and other serious diseases.
Being born with two X chromosomes certainly helps, too, as 85 percent of
centenarians are female. It is somewhat unclear why this is, but, according to
Perls, the female secret to long life lies in menstruation. While only
preliminary evidence exists, it is thought that iron levels are responsible;
women tend to have lower iron counts than men because they lose a considerable
portion of blood every four weeks or so during their period. Iron produces free
radicals in the body, the element that drives aging. So, less iron means slower
aging. Many centenarian women reported having a child after the age of 40,
indicating they had a slowly aging body, possibly due to their increased number
of menstrual periods that lowered iron levels.
So, how can a man compete with a woman? Well, Perls, for example, donates blood
every eight weeks, in part to be altruistic, but also to lower the number of
free radicals in his body. (He says that heíd do it every four weeks if he were
allowed.) In one study, men that donated blood just twice a year had a 20
percent reduction in the formation of preoxidized lipids, the predecessor of
While there may be more women over 100, centenarian men have it better
health-wise. Of all the centenarians, in general, men that live to 100 have
better physical and mental conditions because they must be in particularly good
health to live as long as women.
Routine Maintenance and Upkeep
Itís not all about your genes, however. You can have the best genes possible and
still die quite early as it is estimated that genes are only 30 percent of the
long-life equation. Most centenarians reported regular, moderate exercise and a
healthy diet. The point is, even if you have no family history of heart disease,
you can certainly clog your arteries and raise your risk for stroke and heart
attack by eating fatty foods, smoking and not exercising.
And yes, some people can get away with smoking, others can get away with being a
little bit overweight, but the more careful you are, the better your chances of
"Unlike the lottery, you donít always need to get all six numbers to win, itís
variable, some people have to do everything right, and others can get away with
a few things." Perls says.
Preventing disease is important, because it lessens hospital stays and allows
you to stay active. Centenarians in this study were all generally healthy till
at least 90 years of age. In fact, only 42 percent of centenarians had any
age-related illness after the age of 80. And most suffer only from arthritis,
which can be treated with medication, and cataracts, which are usually corrected
by surgery. This changes the general belief that with age comes disease, loss of
vitality and the need for assistance.
"Many people who get to this age have lived the majority of their life with good
function. Itís a very optimistic view of aging." Perls says.
Taking Control of the Wheel
So what can you start doing now to expand your age limitations and join the most
quickly growing portion of the population? Perls recommends that you stop
smoking and eating so much red meat. If you are overweight, lose a few pounds.
Lower stress and take an aspirin a day to lower vascular risk. Donate blood;
even if the evidence for its health-benefits are not totally clear, it canít
hurt. Exercise not only your body, but also your brain to delay the onset of
age-related mental deterioration. Most importantly, treat your body well, thatís
the vehicle that is going to get you down the road towards a long life.
"If you treat your body like a car and do everything you need for upkeep, you
should be able to get it the 100,000 miles itís supposed to go." Perls says,
"but if you mistreat it, itíll only go 70,000 miles."
And remember, even if you have a grandfather that lived till 120, itís not a
guarantee for a long life.
"Maybe you were born with a Volvo [and have really good genes for aging]." says
Perls, "but you can ruin a Volvo too."