Can You Live to 100?
Do you have a favorite story about a centenarian?
Anna Morgan was one of the centenarians who really woke [my team] up to how amazing some of them can be. She was living on the third floor—the top floor—of a three-generation house, so she was walking those stairs every day. In her mid-90s she had started writing an autobiography, initially around 950 pages. Her editor pared it down to 650 pages, and I'm told she fought over every page. She was completely cognitively intact when we met her, scoring basically perfectly on every test we gave her. We had to ask her if she would be interested in donating her brain for study, and she said, "Well, I'm still using it!" When she did eventually pass away, of a heart attack, her brain showed absolutely no [sign of] disease. Her story became, for us, a gold standard of disease-free aging.
The calculator takes into account the things people are doing right and wrong in terms of maximizing their healthy years. Your smoking habits, your body mass index, whether you're a man or a woman [and whether you have] high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes—there's really good evidence to estimate the impact each has on your life expectancy. For other things, like flossing your teeth, I had to estimate the effect. But it's a fact that a person with gingivitis [gum disease] has an increased risk of heart disease.
Do you think people fudge details to get the calculator to overestimate their life expectancy?
I do think that people go back and change their answers to see what the impact will be. But they don't really have to because we provide tailor-made feedback based upon the person's answers. Really, the estimate of the person's life expectancy is an educational tool to get people to realize what they could do differently to not only live longer but to live a larger chunk of time in good health. We've come up with a saying: "The older you get, the healthier you've been." It's an optimistic and positive view of aging, one that I hope is very enabling.