08 May 2014
DR CHARLENE LEVITAN
Centenarians are the fastest growing age worldwide. We can learn about ageing by studying the extremes, especially those who are models of "successful ageing". So how do we live to 100 in good physical and mental health?
Approximately 30% of longevity is contributed to be our genes. Parents of centenarians live an average age of 10 years longer than the average life expectancy of the population. Centenarians are four times more likely to have a sibling in their early nineties.
The remaining 70% of ingredients relate to the our life style. Montefiore participants in the Sydney Centenarian Study emphasize the role of “personality” as one of those ingredients. They describe themselves as generally emotionally stable, flexible, adaptive, generally satisfied and happy with their current situation in life. “My attitude to life, I always had stamina and a strong will to do well.” “I was little but strong, I had the will to survive”, “I remember the good things. That’s why I’m here.” and “just enjoying life, having a positive outlook and thank God for each day!” are sentiments expressed by the residents 95 years old and above. Personality tests have found that centenarians, when in their prime of life, score low when it comes to feeling of “time urgency”, “tension” and high in “self-confidence”. Interviews with Montefiore residents similarly revealed optimistic attitudes, adaptability and an easy-going approach to life.
Keeping physically attractive is another factor that contributes towards healthy ageing. Many Montefiore residents recall being physically active in their youth and continuing to be so in their older age. Keeping mentally active is similarly important. One resident says “I have always been an avid reader”, another claims “I always try to use my brain.” And a third comment “I used to knit, sew, crochet, play bridge and I still do!” swimming and walking are also popular activities among the oldest residents.
A vital ingredient for longevity is the maintenance of interpersonal connections and relationships. Isolation from family and friends can be detrimental. Montefiore’s oldest old agree – “Whatever I went through should have shortened my life, but I have lived for so long and think it is my family.” One gentleman recalled “I didn’t have an easy life but had lovely warm family and friends. We always had an open house.” And then there’s the wonderful sense of humour – “I got on extremely well with my in-laws!”
Avoidance of disease, or delaying its onset, is another important factor contributing to longevity. Research findings indicated that centenarians do not typically suffer long, gradual declines in health. This finding from the New England Centenarian Study is opposite to what many have thought about ageing in the past. In other words for near centenarians and centenarians it’s not “The older you get, the sicker you get”, but rather “The older you get, the healthier you have been.” One must stay healthy most of one’s life to increase one’s chances of living to 100. In terms of mental health, approximately 35% of centenarians do not have dementia. The Sydney Centenarian Study also found that men who live beyond 95, seem to be in particularly good mental and physical health.
When it comes to diet, Montefiore centenarians have some strong opinions. One lady insists that she “led a healthy life, I always ate six types of veg a day plus I went on a daily walk.” Another said, “I eat very well, I don’t eat Australian food, cook everything myself.” And a third claims, “It’s quality, not quantity.” Research finding suggest that an emphasis on fish, fibre, polyunsaturated fats and olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables, and red wine is important. Conversely, minimising ones intake of saturated fats, hydrogenated vegetable shortenings and margarines, cholesterol, refined sugar, and fast food is recommended.
In summary, reaching an exceptional old age requires a life time of commitment to good health. While we cannot do anything about our genes, we can do a great deal to change our lifestyle to maintain stability, not use alcohol to excess, maintain a healthy weight, not smoke, get adequate sleep and keep stress at a low level. Having a positive attitude to life, and being optimistic may make you live longer. A balanced diet, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, small amount of meat, complex carbohydrates, olive oil and a small amount of red wine, may be the key. Finally an active mind and body, maintained with regular physical, cognitive and social activity are essential ingredients for a long and healthy life.
This article was first published in Montefiore LIFE Pesach 2014.