The first question each of us should ask ourselves is: “Do we really want to live to be 100?”
The reality is it takes courage to live, and there’s a whole lot of living to be had in 100 years. Centenarians outlive their friends, spouses and, all too frequently, their children. Grief and loss is part of the deal. That being said, none of us are immune to grief and loss or the challenges associated with aging, regardless of how old we are.
So then, how does one live to be 100? Well, having good genes helps, but that’s not the whole story. The Boston University School of Medicine New England Centenarian Study found that genetics play a 30 percent role in longevity, leaving 70 percent to lifestyle factors.
Over the past seven years, we have interviewed 75 centenarians and their families in Solano County. When asked, “What is your secret to longevity?” the answers vary. Common responses are: “I eat lots of fruits and vegetables,” “I exercise,” “I’ve always stayed active,” “hard work,” “I am surrounded by people I love and who love me,” “my belief in God,” “my sense of humor” and “good genetics.” Other responses, although less common, include “my nightly cocktail,” “chasing men (women)” and “orneriness.”
Our centenarians come from all walks of life. They have different educational and socio-economic backgrounds and diverse life experiences.
According to Solano County centenarians, there is not a single formula for a long life. Researchers have drawn similar conclusions. While there appears to be a genetic correlation, it is not the only factor contributing to people reaching the age of 100 or more.
The New England Study on Centenarians concluded that “the older you get, the healthier you’ve been.” The one consistent variable among centenarians is that they have markedly delayed disability and disease. In doing so, they are a model of aging well.
Solano’s centenarians are not so different from the centenarians studied around the world in that they all are SAASSEY (think SASSY):
Social connections: Centenarians tend to be gregarious. They love people, and people generally love them. They are actively involved in their family and community and fostered an extensive network of people in their lives. Isolation kills. A recent longitudinal study in the National Academy of Sciences found that people who are socially isolated are more likely to die prematurely, regardless of their underlying health issues. Fifteen years ago, the average American had three good friends who were confidants. Now that number is down to one and a half.
Attitude: “S/he has a positive outlook on life” is frequently used to describe centenarians. Researchers who study the psychology of aging have found that a positive attitude and positive emotions significantly reduce risk of incident disability, mobility problems and mortality. Further, people who have higher, more frequent positive emotions (and attitude) are more likely to engage in social relationships, cope successfully with stressful events, reduce the onset of frailty, feel in control of their lives and live longer.
Activity: Centenarians around the globe are constantly moving and doing. Some are avid athletes who engage in typical exercise, but most are just simply active in their daily lives. Cosie Hearon, 102, of Fairfield, loves to dance and help clean the house. Donald Nix, 100, of Vallejo, still scrubs his own floors. Most of them worked or volunteered into their 90s. They garden, cook, clean, walk and dance. A longitudinal study by the University of Georgia found that contrary to the general belief that the most elderly are frail and living in nursing homes, “20 to 25 percent of centenarians are community-dwelling, cognitively intact, and generally vibrant and full of life.”
Stress management: People with long lives are resilient. They bounce back from tragedy, tend to be easy-going, and are able to accept life as it comes. They possess an incredible sense of humor and immerse themselves in the things they love. They find time to restore, rejuvenate and revitalize.
Spirituality and purpose: Religion, faith and spirituality are not foreign to centenarians. Many attribute their long life to God. Harcharan Singh, 105, of Vallejo, is a devout Sikh. He prays daily and actively participates in his religion. When asked how he came to live so long, he replied, “God is why I am still alive.” Ultimately, centenarians have a purpose for living, a reason they get up and embrace each new day. The purpose may be their faith, their family or community. Not all centenarians are religious, but nearly all have a clear sense of purpose.
Eat wisely: This should come as no surprise, but a healthy diet contributes to health and a longer life. In addition to eating wisely, eating in moderation plays a role.
Young at heart: I have yet to meet a healthy centenarian who didn’t have a twinkle in their eye, a deep curiosity and wonder about the mysteries of life and an exuberance for living. They are not defined by society’s age-spectations. They live by the fundamental principle of carpe diem.
Not all of us will live to be 100, only one in 5,000 will live that long. However, if we follow the lifestyle practices of our greatest elders, then we have a good chance of adding years to our life and life to our years.
Rochelle Sherlock, M.A., is a consultant to the Senior Coalition of Solano County.