When weatherman Willard Scott began sending Happy Birthday wishes to centenarians on the Today show in 1983 the average American lifespan was 70. Those Birthday wishes inspired smiles and amazement. One hundred was remarkable then! Today, centenarians are the fastest growing age group. 1 out of every 26 Boomers will reach that milestone. Who is most apt to experience advanced age and what's it like to to live to 100? Studies yield some surprising answers.
Longevity is in our DNA! Researchers believe that genes such as FOX3a and APOC3 may combine and interact in our bodies to extend life and protect from age related breakdown. Why don't we all live to 100? Some of us have those genes and some of us don't. Did your grandparents live to 100 or are your parents living long lives? Do you look much younger than your chronological age? Do you have low blood pressure and excellent health? If so, your chances of DNA longevity are high. Heredity plays a very significant role in how long we live but if you don't have advanced age in your family your lifestyle choices may help you age toward a personal century.
Lifestyle improves the quality and extent of our lives. In today's world where miracle medicine enables us to overcome age related afflictions and even attain super centenarian status (lifespans beyond 100) the care we invest in our bodies determines whether we have the chance to reach advanced years and how active and well we'll feel. According to a new Census study of centenarians in America 33% of women and 34% of men aged 100 were, remarkably, still living alone at home! "I think the secret of a long life is partly genes but I also think its being conscious of your body....I always did exercises, did a lot of yoga, stretching exercises, and walking," advises Esther Tuttle in her interview with the New York Times at the age of 99. Tuttle was later photographed tending the horses and sitting in her garden at the age of 100. As medical breakthroughs give those of us without the edge of longevity genes an opportunity to reach advanced age our diet, sleep and exercise regimens are critical and so is our outlook.
"I take things as they come. Never get too excited about things," centenarian Phil Damsky told the New York Times in 2010. His 'go with the flow' philosophy with a dash of joie de vivre helps many centenarians avoid stress. Similarly, humor helps to prevent stress. When hundred year old Dorothy Custer joined Jay Leno on television she had the audience in stitches. She later jumped tandem off a bridge for her 102nd. Why am I doing it, she said, "I don't know why...I guess I don't know better." Does humor factor into longevity? Studies have tested that hypothesis with inconclusive results but it doesn't hurt the chances of reaching advanced age and it's a powerful anti-stress coping mechanism. Many of the centenarian's secrets of longevity, posted by blogger Alexander Heyne, involve humor and staying upbeat. Check out his post featuring the perspectives of 23 centenarians.
While going with the flow and avoiding stress is a common link in advice from centenarians you might be surprised that from there many roads seem to lead to 100. Having faith, as 100 year old Mozelle Giles will tell you, is a strong foundation for longevity. Staying active and spending time with family is what keeps Mary Ell on her path to 103. Having something to look forward to each morning and keeping mentally active powers Irving who still works in finance at the age of 104! One might think that all these people led lives of eating right, exercising, and sleeping well. When Nir Barzilai, at the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine looked at centenarian's medical history he discovered that, at age 70, 37% of centenarians were overweight, 37% smoked, and 20% never exercised! These counter intuitive findings suggest self care was less of a factor in advanced age than DNA and outlook---two powerful life determinants. We can't change our DNA yet but we can improve our outlook today.
Last year a Pew Research Center study found that many Americans didn't want to live to 100 but in a 2014 United Healthcare survey of centenarians this year most were "happy" or felt "blessed" to be alive. Just 3% of centenarians surveyed were lonely. The March study also captured some interesting contrasts between the views of centenarians and those of boomers. For instance, the majority of centenarians said the key to longevity is staying close to family and friends while boomers stated humor and independence are the drivers of longevity!
The loss of independence, as 103 year old Elizabeth Sullivan explains on you tube, is a major challenge for some centenarians. When Sullivan had to stop driving, six months before her 100th birthday, it "left a gap" in her life. She gave up a lot of good things she liked doing and had difficulty getting to the store when she wanted things. But, like most centenarians, she put that in perspective as is evident in the way she wraps up her interview with a powerful irony. Like 75% of centenarians, Sullivan doesn't concern herself with the Internet. She uses the telephone and writes her letters in longhand. Many Centenarians also deal with the loss of independence because of failing mobility. "Now I can't do anything because I got to hold onto somethin' with both hands....so, " explains 106 year old, Ann Cooper. Want to know more about what it feels like to be 100? Listen to Ann's interview with the Georgia Centenarian project or watch any of the other interviewed participants.
"Growing old isn't for sissies" is a phrase I hear from 80 year olds quite often but 100 year olds have "been there and done that." An unnamed centenarian, shown in a 2014 news story, sums up the resilience that rewards one hundred years of living. "Sometimes I get depressed," he tells his interviewer, "terribly depressed...oh gosh...it just hurts so much you know but it lasts about 7 seconds and I'm back on top and it's a great life," he concludes, laughing. It is a great life and we live in a time of amazing medical breakthroughs so, boomers, take care of yourselves....one day you may be a centenarian.
Update: May 2015- Dorothy Johnson's charity and involvement in community are what drives her to 100 and beyond.
Update: March 2017- Do your biomarkers indicate longevity? A recent study weighs in.
Update: March 2017 Are you older than 105 or do you know someone who is? Why not participate in the supercentenarian study?
Update Jan 2019 Living to 100 years of age expected to become 4x more likely in 2050