Live To Be 100
Is a long, healthy life a roll of the genetic dice—or can prudent lifestyle choices extend life span by decades? Genes play a part, but new studies suggests that we can extend lifespan by our choices. In the New England Centenarian Study, researchers found a variety of environmental, behavioral and genetic factors that could explain the extraordinary longevity of some folks. And they found that ill health is not a necessary by-product of aging; many people in the study functioned independently well into their 90s.
There are many theories of aging, but most fall into one of two categories: damage theories and programmed theories.
Damage theories say aging is caused by a lifetime of assault on our cells and genetic materials; for example, the free-radical theory of aging says that free radicals–highly reactive molecules inherent in our environments and our diets, and produced by our bodies—destroy cellular compounds.
Programmed theories of aging say all of us have a genetic clock of sorts that determines when we’ll die. The telomere-shortening theory, for example, suggests that cell death is caused by the shortening of telomeres, the end-caps on our chromosomes. Each time a cell replicates, a tiny bit of DNA is taken off the end of each chromosome. When the telomeres get too short, the cell stops replicating and dies, which ultimately leads to the death of the entire organism.
We Americans tend to lean toward the damage theories; we also belive that the older we get, the sicker we get. But that’s not necessarily so. What most studies show is that if you live well throughout your life, you’ll live longer, and bypass most disease.
Not surprisingly, much of this has to do with diet. But the way we think about our lives and how well we cope with stress is as important as how many heads of broccoli or ounces of wild Alaskan salmon we consume. Some of the key findings:
If you eat less, you’ll live longer. Decreasing the amount of food you eat seems to increase lifespan, reduce the incidence of age-related disease, and delay its onset. Research suggests that restricting calories retards inflammation and lowers blood pressure, glucose levels and cholesterol. Here’s the catch: you have to make sure you’re still getting adequate protein, fat and other nutrients. This is one to follow only under the supervision of a health care professional.
Put on a happy face. Long-living people are, for the most part, happy campers. They tend to be laid back, cheery, fun-loving folk. Though they have the same amount of stress, they deal with it more effectively. And it’s probably not surprising that studies consistently link hostility, depression, anxiety and a sense of hopelessness with increased risk of heart disease and death.
Use it or lose it. Can’t get around this one: long-living folk aren’t couch potatoes. Most of them enjoyed a robustly active lifestyle, and tend to walk more and move more in general, even in older years. Mental muscles are also important; in the Centenarian study, an agile mind was strongly related to longevity. New, stimulating activities seem to be the key to boosting brain power: once skills become routine, they lose their ability to stimulate the brain. Learning a foreign language, reading challenging books, memorizing poems, playing chess with a pro, can flex mental muscles and keep them well-toned.
Live like an Adventist. Most older, healthy people have one thing in common: good, clean living. Seventh-Day Adventists are great role models; those who don’t drink or use tobacco, and who are vegetarians, live an average of eight years longer than other Americans, and have a lower rate of heart disease, cancer and other illnesses. Additionally, Adventists generally follow a strong spiritual practice and make ample time for family—two tactics that can reduce age-promoting stress.
Playing the odds. Most of us know at least one robust, bacon-eating and cigarette-smoking octogenarian who laughs in the face of disease. Most of us also know at least one right-eating athlete who dies of cancer at 60 or younger. The interaction between genetics and lifestyle is complex, and there’s no one formula that works for everyone. Everyone’s most important factors are different.The most important life-extending factor for me might be reducing stress; for you, it might be exercising regularly, or eating less meat. Look at your family history for clues; what diseases are closest to home for you? If it’s diabetes, double your efforts to keep blood sugar in check. If it’s cancer, boost your intake of cancer-preventive nutrients (in the context of an overall healthy diet, of course).
Maybe our bodies really want to be here longer. Maybe we just get in our own way.