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Living longer: Luck and lifestyle

September 18, 2016

As all Madera Tribune readers now know (especially those who read my column or saw the display “birthday card” on p. B1 of last Saturday‘s edition), this past Monday was publisher/editor Chuck Doud’s birthday. If you’re a bit older than he — not much older — just a quarter century or so, you have reason to celebrate on Thursday. That’s because Sept. 22 is National Centenarians’ Day, a calendar box that recognizes all those who have lived at least one hundred years.


In the United States, this 10-decade achievement is acknowledged by a letter from President Barack Obama and an announcement on NBC’s “Today Show.” In Japan, which has a “National Respect for the Aged Day” every September, centenarians receive an official certificate and sliver cup from the prime minister. Swedes get a telegram from the king and queen of Sweden, and Italians are the recipients of a letter from the president of Italy. But, best of all, an Irish person who lives to be one hundred receives a “Centenarians’ Bounty,” a gift of €2,540 ($2,862 U.S.).

The theory of relativity
When one tries to remember a synonym for “dry,” or one’s back muscles scream while attempting to tie a shoe lace, or an arthritic finger cramps, one may question whether it’s a good idea to live a hundred years. I think the theory of relativity comes into play.


Every male teenager knows that one hour of homework is interminably longer than one hour of “making out” with his girlfriend. I suspect that female teenagers feel the same way, unless they spend the hour trying to divert advances that may be a bit too amorous. But, surely most of us, regardless of gender, can agree to the following account.


The first decade of life took about 19 minutes. The elapsed time between 10 and 19 was roughly four score (8 decades). The years between 20 and 40 just zipped by. What the heck happened between the first legal beer and the 60-hour work week? It seems that I was 50 just last month, and 60 last week. Time is neither static nor does it move in equal intervals. Somehow, the older one gets, the more unfair the equation seems to be. But, putting “relativity” aside, perhaps it’s not too bad to live for a century.


Living long
In Everyday Health, Krisha McCoy cites a woman from Palm City, Florida, who claims that her 108-year-old mother “smoked most of her life, had two cocktails before dinner…, and never really watched what she ate.”  She said, “Mother did nothing to help her have great longevity.” McCoy points out that researchers believe that centenarians’ bodies “tend to age more slowly than the rest of the population, giving them a genetic advantage for successful aging.” This “delayed aging” even applies to the reproductive system. For example, the Palm City woman was not conceived until her mother was 39 years old.


A 2011 U.S. study reported by CBC News stated, “Overall, those with exceptional longevity did not have healthier habits than the comparison group in terms of body mass index, smoking, physical activity, or diet.”  But, it cautioned, “Although this study demonstrates that centenarians can be obese, smoke, and avoid exercise, those lifestyle habits are not good choices for most of us who do not have a family history of longevity.”


Genetic heritage seems to be the single most important factor in having a long lifespan. Donald Trump’s father lived to be 88 and his mother, 94. Hillary Clinton’s father was 82 when he died; her mother, 92. But, those of us who may not have lucked out in the gene pool need to watch our weight, exercise regularly, avoid smoking, and maintain an active social life. Also, participants in the study were asked why they believed they had lived so long.


One-third reported a family history of long life, as expected. Another 20 percent thought that physical activity played a role. About the same percentage cited having a positive attitude toward life; 12 percent said they kept busy and active; 15 percent did little smoking or drinking (alcoholic beverages), 8 percent thought they just had good luck, and 6 percent said that religion or spirituality played a role. All of this fits pretty well with a 2010 study that was conducted in Japan.

Japanese study
Japanese researchers found that the proportion of centenarians in Okinawa was 92 percent higher than the national average. Further study revealed five factors that contributed to the large number of centenarians in that prefecture:

  1. A diet that contained little meat, eggs, and dairy products but was high in grains, fish, and vegetables.

  2. A lifestyle that was less stressful than it was for residents on the mainland.

  3. A lack of feeling of isolation because of community involvement with older adults.

  4. An emphasis on the value of activity, like walking or gardening.

  5. A sense of purpose that may be accompanied by spirituality.


As a side note, the researchers pointed out that a historical study of the royal court in medieval Korea showed that eunuchs survived an average of 14 to 19 years longer than men who had not been castrated. A critical question, of course, is why would they want to keep living?

Keep busy, enjoy life
In her 2012 book, “Extraordinary Centenarians in America: Their Secrets to Living a Long Vibrant Life,” Gwen Weiss-Numeroff profiles 30 people who discuss how they stay busy, happy, and healthy in their 90s and beyond. She cites Besse Cooper, who was 116 and the oldest person in the world at the time of the interview. According to Cooper, “Mind you own business and don’t eat junk food. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated, work hard, and love what you do.”


At 106, Irving Kahn still puts in six-hour days at the investment company that he founded. A 99-year-old woman had just started writing children’s books. Another person had recently married for the first time at age 100. Weiss-Numeroff commented: “These people all keep busy and all enjoy what they’re doing.”


When she finished all the interviews, Weiss-Numeroff concluded: “The main thing they all had in common was that they all go with the flow ... They have a remarkable ability to adapt to change and that is a huge thing. They don’t sweat the small stuff, but they take things on, embrace life, and move forward.”

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