May 29, 2000 -- Lily Hearst is nearly 103 years old. All her life she has
been healthy and active -- skiing, skating, canoeing. The Berkeley, Calif.,
centenarian makes it a point to swim every day. She also continues to teach
piano, to advanced students only, at the senior center where she eats lunch
Hearst is among the unprecedented number of people now living to 100 and
beyond, many of them in startlingly good health. At the end of the 19th
century, when she was born, about one in 100,000 Americans was 100 or more
years old. Today, the figure is one in 8,000 to 10,000 and climbing. And for
each of these centenarians, there are many people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s
who retain a level of vigor that defies all stereotypes of the elderly. (See Let the
Senior Games Begin.)
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Who can expect to blow out 100 candles someday? "To live to the
100s," says Thomas Perls, MD, MPH, "I would wager you need what I call
genetic booster rockets." Perls, acting chief of gerontology at Beth Israel
Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and assistant professor of medicine at
Harvard Medical School, is the founder and director of the ongoing New England
Centenarian Study (NECS), and a co-author of Living to 100: Lessons in
Living to Your Maximum Potential at Any Age.
The NECS, a series of ongoing studies, is an effort to explore longevity
predictors by tracking the health habits of scores of people who are age 100
Gaining an Extra 10 Years
Based on findings from the study so far, Perls says it may require an
exceptional genetic edge to live to 100. But most of us ought to be able to
live into our mid 80s, nearly 10 years longer than the current average lifespan
of 77 years in the United States and other industrialized countries.
So why the decade of difference between our genetic allowance and our actual
average lifespan? Blame most of it on our bad habits.
Smoking, for instance, increases dramatically the risk of cancer, hardening
of the arteries, and heart disease. Many people eat a terrible diet, downing
gobs of hydrogenated fats that weren't even around to tempt today's
centenarians in their youth. Excess intake of these hydrogenated fats increases
the risk of hardening of the arteries and heart disease. Half the population is
overweight, which increases the risk of heart problems and other ailments.
Only 10% to 15% of people over 65 exercise regularly, says Perls, leading to
an increased risk of osteoporosis, depression, and other health problems and an
unnecessary loss of healthy years.