Reaching 100

By on May 30, 2021 in News

How does somebody live to be 100? Genes, environment or just luck?

In the 20th century the average life expectancy rose 30 years, the greatest gain in 5,000 years of human history, according to health information source Prevention, which also said that the centenarian club increased 51% between 1990 and 2000.

What explains this progression? Advances in health, education, disease prevention and treatment certainly played key roles. But, Gregg Easterbrook reported in The Atlantic in 2014, “Viewed globally, the lengthening of life spans seems independent of any single, specific event. It didn’t accelerate much as antibiotics and vaccines became common. Nor did it retreat much during wars or disease outbreaks.”

Documentarian Jason Prall interviewed centenarians in nine countries in an attempt to gauge the impact of lifestyle, environment and mindset on longevity. Some of the common denominators he identified were simple yet impactful choices in food, exercise and social interaction. “If you want to keep your brain young, music, movement and engaging with others, those three things, I would say are the most important things you can do,” Prall said. “We also need to have fun, enjoy our lives, find something meaningful and be passion-driven, whether it’s art or whatever it is.”

Most researchers agree that key elements of a supportive living environment include exercise, stimulating interpersonal relationships, a positive attitude about challenges, and access to green space, health care and good nutrition. “Constant interaction with other people can be annoying, but overall seems to keep us engaged with life,” said Thomas Perls, a professor at Boston Medical Center.

But of course it’s not that simple. “Lifestyle studies of centenarians can be really puzzling,” noted Brian Kennedy, CEO of the Buck Institute, a research facility dedicated to extending the human life span. “They smoke more and drink less than we might guess. Few are vegetarians. Nothing jumps out as a definitive cause of their long lives.”

Added Luigi Ferrucci, director of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, “On some of the big questions, such as whether longevity is caused mainly by genes or mainly by lifestyle and environment, we just have no idea at all.”

No doubt heredity plays a role – some researchers attribute up to 30% of longevity to heritable traits. John Rowe, a health policy professor at Columbia University and a former CEO of Aetna, cast a vote for education: “If someone walked into my office and asked me to predict how long he would live, I would ask two things: What is your age, and how many years of education did you receive?”

It seems there’s no absolute proof of the path to 100 but plenty of clues. As Easterbrook said, “You should watch your weight, eat more greens and less sugar, exercise regularly, and get ample sleep. But you should do these things because they are common sense—not because there is any definitive proof that they will help you live longer.”

“Bottom line: Keep an eye on these environmental factors. After all, they make up 65% to 80% of your health,” added medical research information provider MDLinx.

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