Americans strive to live healthily into old age. It’s what fuels the multi billion dollar diet industry and keeps buzzy dietary supplements flying off the shelves.
A vast majority of Americans – about 77 percent – hope to live to age 100. But the truth is that the average American lives to about 78.
The relatively small population that do are known as centenarians and their numbers are growing. In 2015, the world was home to more than 450,000 centenarians, more than four times as many as in 1990.
This growth is expected to accelerate, with projections suggesting there will be 3.7 million centenarians across the globe in 2050.
Genetics plays an important role in a person’s likelihood of making to 100, or even beyond the average. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told DailyMail.com: ‘There is an upper limit to human longevity… you cannot live a long life without having won the genetic lottery.’
But there are plenty of factors a person can adopt to help them extend their lifespan and their healthspan – the number of healthy years lived. DailyMail.com spoke with aging experts about what the lives of healthy centenarians have in common.
Centenarians are part of a community
Aging experts who specialize in the behaviors of centenarians have zeroed in on so-called Blue Zones, areas of the world where people live the longest lives, consistently reaching age 100.
They include the islands of Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, Ikaria, Greece, as well as the town of Loma Linda in California and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.
The centenarians across these communities maintain strong interpersonal relationships, they are close with their families, and feel they can trust their neighbors.
People with strong social connections tend to live longer, healthier lives. In fact, people with stronger social relationships had a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships.
A Harvard study spanning 80 years followed about 1,300 people to determine how early-life experiences affected an individual’s lifespan and healthspan over their entire life. Those who had closer, warmer relationships with others lived happier for longer. Close personal relationships had a more substantial impact on delaying mental and physical decline than wealth and status.
Sardinians are always around family, while in Okinawa, the term ‘moais’ is often used to refer to groups of five friends that committed to each other for life.
Dr Dilip Jeste, a renowned neuropsychiatrist who studies aging at the University of California San Diego College of Medicine told DailyMail.com: ‘Social connection has a greater impact on health and longevity than things like various diseases we try to treat and control – hypertension, diabetes, smoking, or obesity, et cetera.
‘Humans are a social species. We can survive only if we have a sense of community and belongingness.’
In a hyper-connected world dominated by social media, connectedness may not seem to be an issue. But millions of followers on Instagram or thousands of Facebook friends belie a true loneliness problem that is pervasive in the US. What people are lacking is genuine, intimate interpersonal connection.
Dr Mary Gallant, Interim Dean of University at Albany’s School of Public Health told DailyMail.com: ‘Social isolation and loneliness among older adults puts people at really high risk for all kinds of negative mental and physical health outcomes. So being engaged in social activities, whether that’s with friends or family or others [is important.]’
They have a strong sense of purpose
A reason for being: Costa Ricans call it ‘plan de vida,’ while Okinawans call it ‘ikigai’. In Sardinia, elders often take on the role as child caregivers.
People in the blue zones all have this in common. They live lives with intention and purpose.
Ikigai is believed to be such an effective tenant for living healthily that Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has included it in the official health promotion strategy. A 2008 study of more than 43,000 Japanese found that not having ‘ikigai’ was linked to a 60 percent higher risk of dying of cardiovascular disease.
Having a sense of purpose and meaning in one’s life has long been associated with longevity. People who believe their lives have meaning also have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol
In a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers followed about 7,000 adults over the age of 50 and interviewed them using a questionnaire to rank their life purpose. The researchers assigned life-purpose scores based on the participants’ responses and followed up with them five years later.
They concluded that participants who had the lowest life’s purpose scores were twice as likely to have died than those with the highest scores.
Meanwhile, a 2016 meta-analysis of 10 distinct studies involving a total of more than 136,000 people show that having a purpose in life can lower a person’s all-cause mortality risk by 17 percent.
Many people find purpose and meaning through their jobs and retirement can jeopardize that, according to Dr Jeste.
He said: ‘Retirement is actually a big factor for many people, especially men. Because the job defines the purpose in life and when you retire, or when you are forced to retire, the purpose is gone just like that.’
‘So they find other things to do, they do more volunteer work, or they may go back to doing some art that they were doing when they were young.’
In this sense, a sense of meaning and altruism go hand-in-hand. Service to others helps foster a sense of community in addition to purpose.
Dr Carolyn Aldwin, Director of the Gerontology Program at Oregon State University told DailyMail.com:
‘If you look at, for example, who gets PTSD after natural disasters, people who have reached out to help other people during natural disasters are less likely to develop PTSD because it’s purposeful and meaningful, and gives them a sense of control.
‘You can’t rescue everybody. But if you’ve done your damnedest to, to get people out of piles of rubble, it really helps your own satisfaction with such situation.’
They are spiritual, not necessarily religious
In blue zones, centenarians take part in spiritual practices that experts say impart a sense of groundedness and belonging.
Spirituality is not synonymous with organized religion, Dr Jeste cautions. Spirituality can come in the form of being in commune with nature, or carrying out acts of altruism.
He said: ‘An atheist can still be spiritual in the sense they believe that there is something larger, something that we cannot see or hear or feel.’
Dr Aldwin told DailyMail.com: ‘On an individual level, we’ve done work showing that congestive heart failure patients, on average, who identify as high in spirituality live longer than folks who don’t.
‘So it helps to have a healthy lifestyle, yes, it really helps to have a supportive community, but it also helps to be centered and grounded, and not knocked off your base by the stress that all of us experience.’
Still, it is proven that belonging to a church creates a strong sense of community, a proven factor in living into your hundreds.
A 2017 report of 5,449 middle-aged Americans (40 to 65) published in PLoS One found that, after adjusting for age, sex, race and, chronic medical conditions, churchgoers were 46 percent less likely to die in the 14 year follow-up period compared to non-churchgoers.
The community of Loma Linda is home to 21,000 people who are predominantly Seventh Day Adventists, a religion that mandates a healthy lifestyle and acts of service.
In 2009, researchers from Loma Linda and Austin, Texas found that it was faith that turbocharged their healthy habits and emotional wellness. They were engaged with members of their community and were physically active. It also helps that they abstain from alcohol.
Americans now live 76.4 years on average, down from 78.8 years in 2019
They practice stress management
Healthy centenarians typically maintain low stress levels thanks to a variety of practices including having a strong support system and taking plenty of naps during the day.
It’s no secret that that chronic stress produces gradual wear and tear on the body. Chronic stress has shown to increase the risk of dementias, anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure and even a weakened immune system.
A particularly helpful and age-defying practice is called proactive coping, a future-oriented strategy that entails setting oneself up for success by anticipating potential stressors and acting in advance either to prevent them or to blunt their impact.
According to Dr Aldwin, this can mean putting money away ahead of time in the event that the car needs some expensive repair or gassing up before a long trip so as not to run out of fuel in the middle of the night on a country road.
Older adults are already good at proactive coping to reduce stress later on.
Dr Aldwin said: ‘Stress management, being able to shrug off little things, being able to organize a life structure that can decrease your exposure to stress especially in later life would really help.
‘A study was done many years ago of 80 year olds in San Francisco, and they found that they did a lot of proactive stuff, like if they were driving to the city, they would plot out routes for where they didn’t have to make a left hand turn, or if they’re going to travel, they go to the airport a day ahead of time to make certain they knew what they were doing and how to get there.’
Having a realistic perspective on life stressors an how people respond is just as important.
Dr Aldwin added: ‘Not making mountains out of molehills is really important.
‘It’s better off not to get stressed out about something in the first place. Someone cuts you off in traffic, big deal, right? Your flight’s delayed a half hour because they have to fix something? It’s better that they fix something rather than have the plane go down.’