Live Long, Live Well

What's the secret to a longer-than-average lifespan?

4 min read

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 each day.

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.)

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 and above.

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.

The reason Perls would like to see people take better care of their health is not simply to add a decade or so, just for the mathematical thrill of it. Better health habits, he says, won't only boost your chances of living longer but may also shorten the period of ill health before death. So you're likely to have not just a longer life but a better one.

The idea that "the older you get, the sicker you get" is wrong, says Perls. The Centenarian Study findings suggest that those who reach extreme old age do so precisely by avoiding ill health, rather than by enduring it.

This is not to say that the oldest old have led especially easy lives when it comes to external circumstances. But the NECS finds that centenarians tend to be optimistic and adaptable and to shed stress effectively, serving as good examples for the rest of us.

It may sound trite, but it's never too late to change our health habits and vow to take better care of ourselves. Through good clean living, the majority of us can lengthen our lives, Perls' studies suggest.

Herman Arrow is an example of this thinking. Longevity doesn't exactly run in his family. He can think of one relative who lived to be 92, but most of the people in his family have succumbed to heart disease long before reaching their 90s. Arrow himself had quadruple bypass surgery when he was 66. "We have some unpleasant genes somewhere in the background," he laughs.

He hadn't done much in the way of sports since high school, but after his surgery he thought he'd better start getting some exercise again. Now he is 80 years old and an avid race walker. Over the last several years he has won gold and silver medals in the California State Senior Games, and silver and bronze medals in the National Senior Games. He also takes satisfaction in his work as founder and president of the Marin County chapter of Mended Hearts, an organization of heart disease survivors who support others undergoing treatment.

As Arrow's experience shows, it's never too late to turn over a new leaf -- though it's advisable to check in with your doctor before beginning any new workout routine

"It's those older years that are so worth fighting for," says Perls. "The best time of your life can be in your 70s, 80s, and 90s, if you've got your health."

Lily Hearst echoes Perls' sentiment. "Life is wonderful," she says with a smile, "when you are healthy."

Writer David R. Dudley is based in Berkeley, Calif. His stories have appeared in The New Physician and The San Jose Mercury News.