Secrets of Centenarians

November 05, 2019

With so much medical science and technology today focused on longevity, it’s no surprise that some people are living longer. But new science aside, when it comes to living and thriving happily into one’s golden years, there’s more to it than just luck and genetics. Centenarians — people who are living up to and past 100 years of age — are a special group of people from whom we can definitely learn. 

Research looking at the diets, lifestyle choices, and activities of centenarians shows that they are doing a few things differently than most of us. Instead of reinventing the wheel, it might be a good idea to adopt some of the habits these people have obviously found to be successful. Read below to learn some of their secrets, which may help us live a lot longer, and with a higher quality of life, than ever before.

Many are Living Longer, but With More Chronic Disease

A 2018 report by George Leeson shows that life expectancy has increased globally from around 47 years in the mid twentieth century to about 71 years today. This number is expected to reach into the 80’s by the end of the twenty-first century. But before we celebrate this increase, we need to also understand that the number of seniors with an average of four or more chronic diseases is staggering and expected to double by 2035, according to a study recently published in British scientific journal Age and Ageing. To make matters worse, one third of these seniors will be diagnosed with a brain-related impairment, such as dementia or depression

This does somewhat overshadow the idea of living longer with an enjoyable quality of life. According to a November 2018 report by the Mayo Clinic entitled “Aging: What to expect,” natural aging can lead to health issues. These include many chronic diseases with symptoms like:

  • Stiffening of the arteries and vessels
  • Bones shrinking in size and density
  • Structural changes in the digestive tract leading to more constipation
  • Bladder muscles becoming weaker
  • Memory or thinking skills weakening
  • Vision and hearing diminishing
  • Gums pulling back from teeth
  • Skin becoming thinner and less elastic
  • Metabolism slowing down

According to the National Institute on Aging, nearly 61% of Americans aged 65 years or older have multiple chronic conditions. To combat such signs of aging, and decrease the risk of living with chronic diseases that accelerate aging, scientists discovered that seniors should engage in a few healthy lifestyle behaviors that can delay or prevent chronic disease, and help extend their quantity and quality of life.

Tips for Longer, and Better, Life

Experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine in a report entitled “4 Top Ways to Live Longer” report that the most impactful behaviors you can undertake to lengthen life include:

  1. Stop smoking: We all how bad smoking is — the list of health issues associated with it is long. Smoking can constrict blood vessels that can negatively impact heart health. Not to mention that smoking can harm your lungs and cause breathing problems.
  2. Maintain a body mass index less than 25: Although the body mass index is not the most accurate indicator of health, it can act as a screening tool to help identify those potentially at risk for being overweight or obese. This in turn can help find those people that may have a higher risk of chronic disease. 
  3. Stay active for at least 30 minutes daily: Exercise can help not only strengthen the heart, but can also help manage weight.
  4. Follow a Mediterranean-style diet: This Greek-style diet is moderate in healthy fats like salmon, nuts, and plan-based oils. It also focuses on consuming plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables that can reduce inflammation in the body. There are also variations of it, like Dr. Nancy Lin’s Medit-American Diet and Lifestyle, which may be more suited to the modern lifestyle. 

Besides the tips above, the experts at Harvard Health Publishing in their article “Tips for a Longer Life” suggest:

  • Taking a multivitamin and making sure you are getting enough vitamin D3 and calcium everyday: A high quality food-based (properly dosed) multi can help bridge nutritional gaps in your diet. Also, vitamin D3 and calcium can help maintain healthy bones.
  • Challenging your mind: By exercising your mind, keeping your brain activated and stimulated, you can help keep your brain health sharp. It’s true that if you don’t use it, you will lose it when it comes to mental acuity. 
  • Building a social support network: Maintaining a community of friends and loved ones around you can help increase quality of life. A 2017 study by Werner-Seidler and colleagues shows that high-quality social connection can reduce risk of depression.
  • Taking care of your dental health: A 2018 study shows that poor dental health can increase the risk of myocardial infarction. This is because a tooth or gum infection can quickly lead to an infection that is carried into the body via blood, which in turn cause major issues to the heart. Therefore, taking care of your teeth and visiting the dentist regularly can help lower heart health risk.

Other Factors that Impact Length and Quality of Life

A 2018 study by Calder and colleagues shows that the earlier a person makes healthy lifestyle changes, the greater chance for extended healthy lifespan. Furthermore, a 2017 study by Picca and colleagues shows that reducing calories may also help extend lifespan.

What Blue Zones Tell Us

You can’t discuss longer living without mentioning those famous Blue Zones. If you have not heard of Blue Zones, they are really worth knowing about. You can find a number of popular documentaries and programs about these regions of the world where life expectancy (statistically-speaking ) is highest, and where people are not just living past 100 years old, they are also happily thriving into those later years! By looking at the lifestyle behaviors of the people in such regions, scientists and researchers have found patterns that contribute to a longer life. 

The 5 most-studied Blue Zone regions include:

  • Barbagia region of Sardinia
  • Ikaria, Greece
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
  • Loma Linda, California
  • Okinawa, Japan

The Blue Zones team of experts studied the people in such regions and discovered the following characteristics of those that live a longer life have most in common. These characteristics are known as the Power 9:

  • Move naturally: Instead of focusing only on boot camps and marathons, the people that live longest just try to move naturally as much as possible each day. Walking and farming were the top ways people moved on a daily basis.
  • Purpose: Having a sense of purpose can help provide a reason for someone to want to live healthier and longer.
  • Downshift: Learning to downshift basically means finding ways to better manage stress to reduce inflammation
  • 80% Rule: This rule means that you should stop eating when your stomach feels 80% full. Following this rule may lower risk of weight gain and related chronic disease risk.
  • Plant Slant:  Most of the centenarian diets included only about 3 - 4 ounces of meat five times a month. The rest of the diet was mostly plant-based.
  • Wine at 5: Most people in the Blue Zones consume 1 - 2 (5-ounce) glasses of wine daily. The health benefits may stem from the antioxidant resveratrol in red wines. However, the health benefits of daily wine consumption are debated.
  • Faith: Most of the centenarians were a member of some faith-based community.
  • Loved Ones First: The centenarians seem to put their family first. This means they keep aging parents and family members nearby, commit to a life partner, and invest time and love in their children.
  • Right Tribe: This last guideline for longer living has to do with keeping in touch with people who live healthy lives. Doing this can motivate you to keep living healthfully each day.

Bottom Line on Longevity

Many of us eat healthy and exercise to try and prevent chronic disease. By doing this, we may hope to live longer lives and spend more time with our loved ones. However, from looking at what centenarians do to live longer, it’s easy to see that there are some additional habits and choices we could all benefit from.

Health of the body and mind is vital to living a longer and higher quality life. So, along with eating a balanced diet and staying active in body, feed and exercise your mind too. Also, be sure to manage stress and keep a close support system to maintain purpose. Together, these behaviors may help you to live well into your golden years.

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