Can You Live to 100?
People who've had long lives presumably hold keys to good health, and the rest of us might do well to learn from them. That's why Thomas Perls, a geriatrician at the Boston University Medical School, studies centenarians—people who've been kicking for a century or more. As head of the New England Centenarian Study, the world's largest study of such people, Perls has researched the habits, genes, and medical histories of about 900 centenarians. Perls thinks centenarians offer an unparalleled look into how we can all age gracefully, healthfully, and happily.
What's most striking about long-lived people?
About 90 percent of centenarians live independently into their early 90s. A good chunk of centenarians have had some pretty significant age-related diseases, including heart attack and stroke. But they deal with them much better than other people, who might die of those diseases. When centenarians do develop disabilities, they tend to do so only during a compressed period near the very end of their long lives.
Is it good to have long-lived relatives?
Exceptional longevity runs strongly in families. [These families] may have longevity-enabling genes that slow down aging, or they may lack what we call "disease genes" that make other people develop, for example, heart disease, stroke, or Alzheimer's disease. We also study the siblings and children of centenarians. The kids very much follow in the footsteps of their parents. They have rates of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes that are 60 percent lower than others born around the same time. They have a mortality rate that's 20 percent lower.
Can all of us live to 100?
I think that most of us are built for about 88 years, a little bit less for men, a little bit more for women. Much of getting to that age depends on your health behavior. To add an additional 10 to 12 years beyond that, you may need to either lack disease genes or have some of those longevity-enabling genes.
So 88 years is a typical maximum lifespan?
Seventh-Day Adventists have the highest average life expectancy in the country—88 years, according to one study. This group is quite diverse in terms of race and geographic location, but they have homogenous health habits, which are dictated by their religion. They're vegetarian, they don't smoke or drink alcohol, they regularly exercise, they eat in moderation, and they really set aside some time for family and religion. All that may help them manage stress well. And, lo and behold, they have life expectancies about 10 years greater than those of average Americans. And I would venture to say that that's largely because of these health habits.
What factors are most important to achieving maximum lifespan and better health in old age?
I have an acronym: AGEING, spelled the British way. "A" is for attitude. Centenarians are optimistic, and they tend to be funny. I think that those personality characteristics translate into being able to manage stress well. They don't internalize stress; they seem to be able to let go. The "G" is for genetics. If people in your family have passed away in their 60s and 70s, alarm bells should be going off: You, more than other people, need to pay attention to prevention and screening. The "E" is for exercise. I say people should exercise five times a week, 30 minutes a day. "I" stands for interest, and that has to do with exercising your brain. "N," nutrition: The goal should be a healthy weight. "G" is for, Get rid of smoking, and get rid of antiaging quackery. I'm a very outspoken critic of the antiaging industry, especially growth hormone, which I think is really quite dangerous.